Jamal Rashad Cornell is a published flash fiction writer currently serving as a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps since 2011. He is also a student at Full Sail University attaining his Bachelors of Arts in Creative Writing for Entertainment with which he plans to start a publishing company. Cornell has been writing poetry since the summer of 2000. Over the years, he has compiled eight completed books totaling over 350 poems and 14 short stories.
The One-way Ticket
“Yeah, yeah! One sec! I’m coming, mac!” The night watchman hustled to the rapid knocks coming from the employee entrance. “Sheesh! Whaddya want?”
“Boston Police! We’re responding to a disturbance!
“I never made a call.”
“Look, mac. We got a call saying there was a disturbance at the Gardner Museum and we’re just here to check it out. Ya gonna let us in or what?” The mustached officer’s gruff voice crackled over the PA system.
“Yeah, hold on.” A loud buzzer rang and the wooden door’s automated lock clicked. The door creaked open and two policemen entered the art museum, looking around as the security guard scratched his scalp. “I didn’t call the police. Maybe my partner did. H-hey, Joey! You call the cops fer somethin’?”
Joey shook his head as he remained seated with his feet crossed and propped on the counter of the security desk.
“I don’t know what to tell you guys, we never –” he turned to see a gun pointed at his waist. “Whaddya think yer doing?” he yelled.
The taller, clean shaven officer looked at the guard’s nametag over the rounded rim of his glasses. “Rick, is it? Joey?” he inquired in a British accent. “Gentlemen, this is a robbery.”
The mustached officer clubbed Rick over the head with a blow that knocked him to the floor and retrieved a roll of duct tape from his jacket pocket; the adhesive’s distinct peeling rang throughout the room. He taped his captive’s wrists behind his back and rifled through his pockets.
“And what do you think you’re bloody doing, you wanker?”
“I-I wanted to see if he had any change his pockets.”
“Don’t muck this up! Get over here and tie up this chap, eh?” Wearing a sly grin on his face, the Brit pointed a gun at Joey, a glare of light glinting across his glasses as he turned to face him. “We don’t want this fellow doing something stupid while we loot the place now do we?”
The mustached officer finished tying the second guard to a chair; afterwards, he searched for his partner who had moved into the museum’s Dutch Room. His boorish voice and thunderous footsteps echoed throughout the corridors. “What are we stealing, mac?”
“We aren’t stealing anything, ‘mac’, we’re liberating!”
“Liber-ATING! We’re liberating art! And keep your voice down! Do you want the neighborhood to know we’re robbing it?” He massaged his brow while speaking under his breath, “Bloody Yanks and their poor educational system. I can’t believe we end up losing the war to them.” He surveyed the room and made checks on a piece of paper he had pulled from his phony police blouse, “and Édouard Manet’s Chez Tortini; that makes six. They’re all here; time to collect.” The Brit unsheathed a box cutter from its protective casing and cut into a painting with unbridled vigor. “I don’t need anyone looking for professionals after this is over with.”
“Which ones should I take, mac?”
“Er, take whichever you think will look good on your Frigidaire, mate. Maybe your mum will think you got better at your crayon drawings.” He rolled his eyes and continued to smash and cut into the paintings from his list. He placed each painting between two layers of bubble-wrap and walked them to the museum’s employee entrance.
While his partner was preoccupied with choosing paintings, he made one last trip into the museum’s “Dutch Room.” Upon entering, his eyes locked onto his heart’s true desire: the bronze eagle finial atop a Napoleonic flag. With both hands, he unscrewed the finial from its post, careful not to drop it, and placed it into a mahogany box with a foam insert of its shape. After securing the box, he made his way to the employee entrance to meet with his partner.
The Brit and the mustached officer loaded their score into the trunk of a red Dodge Daytona. The mustached officer started the car as the Brit opened the box in his lap; a faint light shone throughout the car as he marveled at the finial and his eyes sparkled in it. His soul warmed as he wondered if what he felt was like what Sir Galahad felt when he drank from the Holy Grail.
“Wh-what’s that?” The mustached officer peered from the corner of his eye.
“My ticket home.”
“H-home? You mean back to England? Where at in England ya from?”
“Where?” the Brit smiled, his eyes still fixed on the finial, “it’s more like when.”
Clyde Liffey lives near the water.
We were eating our lunch, as we were wont to do, in our company’s modern mailroom. I leaned back, white bread sandwich in hand, closed my eyes in reminiscence. Thirty or forty years ago when I started working, this room or its equivalent would be covered with pin up girls displaying assets so glossy and unreal you’d think sex was impossible as it mostly is for me.
“What do you have?” Don asked.
I opened my eyes, looked at my sandwich as if I didn’t know what I made last night, didn’t already eat a quarter of it. “Tuna.”
“You’re a good Catholic boy.”
“It has nothing to do with being Catholic. I just tend to run out of lunch meat at the end of the week.”
“Why don’t you buy more when you go shopping?”
“I tried that but then I just make thicker sandwiches or snack on it more.” I patted my barely there paunch. “Besides meat isn’t good for you. What do you have in that container?”
“It’s a Mediterranean eggplant dish. It’s good for you. Carrie wants me to be healthy too. She saw the recipe somewhere, figured she’d try it out.”
I of course know what ratatouille is. I just didn’t believe Carrie would ever make anything like that. “Is it any good?”
He lifted his fork. “Try some?”
Something yellow was dripping off the zucchini his fork had speared. “No thanks.”
We were silent a while. I glanced at the clock. It was 12:45. The office manager – we don’t call them mail boys anymore; besides he’s forty-five – would be back in fifteen minutes. We’d have to return to our adjacent cubicles. I finished my sandwich, drank most of my water. “Is she a good cook?”
“Carrie? I don’t think so. Not as good as my mom. I guess every recently unconfirmed bachelor would say that. I give her credit for being adventurous though. Midwesterners like us would never try out recipes like that when we were growing up.”
“We didn’t do that back then in the East either.”
“Times are changing, I guess. Her cooking sure beats mine. It’s nice to have someone cook for you. You should try it.”
“Sorry.” I guess he’d forgotten about my three week failed marriage some twenty-five years ago. Don started working at our company just as my divorce or annulment, I can’t remember what she insisted on, was getting finalized.
The door swung open. We returned to our posts.
Though I never smoked and Don quit years ago, we still take Friday afternoon smoke breaks when we can. Since it was a nice day, at least it wasn’t raining, we decided to stroll around the slowly emptying office park. “Any plans for the weekend?” I ventured, as I nearly always do on these weekly jaunts.
“Not much. We’ll probably go to a movie.”
“I don’t know – either a chick flick or a shoot-'em-up. I forget whose turn it is to pick.”
“How do you stand those movies?”
“They’re not so bad. I just put my arm around Carrie, zone out for a while. It beats doing yard work.”
That justification didn’t resonate with me. I live in an apartment thirty miles away from the office. Don lives twenty or thirty miles away from work in almost the exact opposite direction. I don’t think we’ve ever seen each other away outside the office except for company events. “How is Carrie?”
“She’s fine. She’s excited about her daughter coming back from college.”
“Where does she go?”
“I keep forgetting. Somewhere up north. Bowdoin or Brandeis, something like that.”
“They’re both good schools.” I was losing interest in his talk. These Friday afternoon rambles were beginning to feel like couples time and Don was one of the least likely persons I’d couple with. We strolled dreamily and mostly silently along until a cream-colored convertible’s horn honked. Anya was on her way out of the park. She raised her sunglasses, looked straight at Don. “Care for a ride?”
“I’d love to but I still have to work.”
“Can’t your partner cover for you?” She nodded at me. I guess she still didn’t know my name.
“Sorry, he’s the resentful type.”
“Too bad,” she poutingly said and drove off.
I looked at my watch. It was not yet three. “What was that all about?”
“I guess Carrie let her leave early. Some departments have a heart.” He loosened a high button on his shirt, glanced anxiously to his left and right. “Do you have a lot to do when we get back?”
“Unless an emergency comes up, all I have to do is fill in my timesheet.”
“Good. Let’s extend our walk. I’ll tell you something if you promise not to repeat it.”
We veered into an unaccustomed walkway so Don could tell his tale: “The other day Anya and I had to work late on her project. Carrie, you know how we drive in together, had to leave on time so she could play bridge with her girlfriends. She felt guilty so I told her not to worry, I’d get the company car service to drive me home. The work didn’t take as long as we thought it would (despite what I’ll put down in my timesheet): we finished up a few minutes after six. I told Anya I was in a bind. We can’t use the car service until after eight. She offered to give me a ride. We stopped in a bar. She started talking about her childhood in Guyana.”
“I thought she was Indian.”
“She is, from Guyana. Anyway one drink led to another, she told me some more stories, and –” We were back on the main road. Our building, gleaming in the late afternoon part cloudiness, was only a few blocks away.
“A gentleman always elides.”
We didn’t speak the rest of the way – Don I suppose because he felt he’d already said too much, me because I was roiling in jealousy. Anya, nearly thirty or not much past it, a little gawky, short, both thin and round, was hired eight or nine months ago. I wanted her from day one but, office politics and my poor navigation of them being what they are, I couldn’t think of a way in. Don, already married, seduced her without even trying or wanting to.
A few minutes before five, Carrie came to our area, jangling her car keys above eye level and my plans coalesced.
I lost my first Anya when she left me twenty days after our city hall wedding. What friends I had at the time scoffed at me for seeking a mail order bride. I was young, I was lonely, she had a nice soft focus smile, I figured I’d do what I could to end the cold war. Her English was better than the letters we’d exchanged led me to believe, she was affectionate, inventive, fun-loving, in short, much more than I thought I’d bargained for – until her Russian fiancé arrived.
Newcomer Don was one of the few who didn’t mock me. Most of my antagonists from those days are gone now – moved on to better or at least different jobs or dead. Don and I don’t share many interests but since he was nice enough not to needle me about my romantic failings and I have an occasional need to turn a good deed, I remained loyal to him.
A few weeks passed. Don and Anya dallied on their project, varied the days they stayed late. I tried to cultivate Carrie.
“I hear your daughter’s back from college.”
“Yes, Anne did very well her first year.”
“Odd – Don can never remember the name of her school.”
She told me. All I remember is that it wasn’t in New Jersey. That ruled out reminiscing about my childhood. I returned to my desk muddled about my next line of attack.
My plans simmered while I worked on my assignment and ignored Don’s jabbering about the minor league game he was going to that night. Just as I was putting the finishing touches – pretty green and yellow highlights – on my spreadsheet, Carrie stopped by. “Where’s Don?”
I looked up. “Jeez, he must have let for his game tonight. Weren’t you going with him?”
“No. That’s a boy’s night out. I came over to tell him that the shop called. They have to keep our car overnight. I’d ask Anya for a ride but she just left.”
“Can your daughter pick you up?”
“She’s waitressing. She won’t get off till midnight. I’ll think of something.” She started to walk away.
“Carrie, wait. I can give you a ride in about fifteen minutes. I just need to clean up a few things.”
“Thanks. If it’s not out of your way, I’d appreciate it. I’ll wait in my office.”
I shut down my computer and hurried to the wash room as soon as she was out of sight. Either Don never talks about me at home or Carrie never listens, I thought. Otherwise she’d know I live more than fifty miles away from her.
We stopped for gas soon after leaving the office park. Carrie primped herself while I filled the tank. She was plump, had a musty smell and porcine features yet looked more like a middle aged prude than a pig or some other caricature. I wasn’t sure what Don saw in her but I kept myself aroused.
Traffic was light or at least not stressful. We’d made it to her well-cut lawn and driveway around six o’clock.
“If you have time, I can fix you a drink before you hit the road again.”
“That would be great.”
We sat next to each other on her small white couch, sipping strong martinis. “I was always a good girl,” Carrie said, “and yet I had Anne my senior year in college. He was a prefect – I went to a Catholic school. I told my parents the father must be a graduate student who got me drunk at a party, that I didn’t remember. Of course we didn’t – don’t – believe in abortion. I was nearly abstinent from then until I got this job and met Don eighteen months ago. You probably know him much better than I do. I guess he’s a little strange and set in his ways from being a bachelor so long but he’s a decent companion especially now that Anne’s going to college. We have a lot in common, both of us coming from the Midwest and all. Still, seeing Anne preparing to leave the nest for good, I feel like it’s time for me to spread my wings too. Would you care for another drink?”
I looked at the coffee table in front of us. Carrie finished her drink, I’d had about a third of mine. “I still have to drive, but you can freshen it.”
Carrie rose, drew the curtains closed. She returned a few minutes later with the drinks on a tray wearing just a bra and panties, overflowing her imposed restraints. She sat much closer to me this time. “I hope you’re not offended. It gets so hot around here.” The air conditioning was on. She smelled mustier than before. She put her pale arm around me, puckered her lips, soon she was sitting on my lap. I thought of Don, my erstwhile confidante, what the office gossips would say, sweat more profusely. She unbuttoned me and I groaned.
Kai Raine ( http://www.kairaine.com/ ) is a world citizen and an ex-biologist. Kai is currently attempting a career in writing whilst relative-hopping, living out of a suitcase.
The smoke coils and dances through the air and up into the sky. I wish that I were that rising snake.
If I close my eyes and open my mind, I can feel the wind whipping my hair back again. I can feel it embracing my body in arms that are tangible for only this briefest instant in the history of time. I can forget the slithering lizard in my chest and remember how the world seemed to spread out before me, and the illusion that gravity had lost its ceaseless battle with the air. The sky came close, and I thought that I might be able to reach out and touch it. I was totally and utterly free.
But it only lasted for a moment, because humans don’t fly. They can’t, as it happens. Gravity never stops fighting and was quick to reassert its claim on me. Legally, the court ruled that I was coerced while under the influence and was not in any condition to consent to that stunt. I let the lawyer say what she wanted, and said what she told me to say when I was put on the witness stand. I didn’t lie; everything I said on the stand was the truth. Why should I have? I couldn’t care if I tried. Or maybe I didn’t want to try.
I can still remember the elation of those brief seconds; I still wake in the middle of the night drenched in a sweat, half lost in a dream where I flew again. My heart races in my chest, and then strangles me as wakefulness reminds me that it will never happen again.
It wasn’t fear—never fear. What did I have to fear? What isn’t worth those few moments of truly feeling alive?
Because I was the only one inebriated and the film was theirs, the boys lost the dispute and had to pay a fine. I got compensated for medical bills and some extra savings. None of it made me feel any better—if anything, it made me feel nauseous and I had to run to the bathroom as soon as court let out—but I kept my mouth shut because I couldn’t find a reason to care.
It would have driven my lawyer insane. Driven her sanity up in tangles into the air, just like these dancing coils: these coils that I wish I were.
Jeff and Brian don’t speak to me. The money that went towards the fine was money they’d been saving to finish the production. Sometimes I have to bite my lip when I see them across a room or a store or a street. Sometimes I end up running into a bathroom anyway, heaving as my body expels the meager portion that I called a meal that morning.
Greg is still my lab partner in our chemistry night class. On the first day after I got out of the hospital, he asked if I was alright. I said I was. He started talking about Lena, referencing Jeff and Brian without ever really talking about them. Maybe he was trying to build a bridge to mend things between us; maybe he was trying to dispel the awkward silence; maybe he just wanted to see how I would react.
I didn’t say anything, but something built up in my stomach. It was different from the strangled sensation of waking after a flying dream. It was a viper embraced by blue-hot flames, creeping up on me in mere discomfort that belied its destructive potential. When it struck at last, Greg was just referencing the latest monthly dinner—the first one that hadn’t included me since our group formed five years ago.
When I had to run to the sink at the back of the room, the class assumed that it was a lingering effect of my injuries. Greg assumed that I was grieving the loss of the “family” that had been mine a month ago.
I told him I didn’t care. I wasn’t lying. If some broken corner of my soul was bathing in freezing flames with a desire to break out of its cage, Greg didn’t ask and I couldn’t say. After that, our conversations were strictly chemistry.
I wonder sometimes if it would be easier if I talked to them. But I seriously doubt it.
Work and night classes are my life now, punctuated by strenuous walks through the mountains when I find time that I’ve failed to fill. My grades are probably falling, and I keep breaking things at work. I don’t care enough to want to care, and my boss forces to me to take breaks that I don’t want.
The creak of the back door opening snags my attention away from the beautiful wisps.
“Why’re you-” Lena starts as she pokes her head out the back door. She sees me and stops short. I wonder if she’ll go back inside. She merely closes the door and comes to sit on the crate beside me. “Think you could spare one?” she asks. Her voice is light, as though she believes that the rift is gone.
I hold out the box and she takes one. I offer her my lighter. She takes it and lights the cigarette with practiced fingers.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” Lena remarks.
A breeze brushes across my hair. I wish it would blow harder, like the wind that embraced me through me in the sky.
“Took it up last month.”
She raises an eyebrow but doesn’t comment. I watch her for another moment before I look back at the coils.
The human catapult was in the papers, and most people are eager to talk about it--Dedication to the art of film production, one flyer lauded. Film enthusiast injured in stunt with human-launching catapult, said a single tiny paragraph on page twelve of the city paper. I couldn’t find a reason to care about those, either. Maybe it bothers me that my friends are gone. I think it might be literally killing me that I got a taste of freedom for a few seconds, which is just enough that it whets the thirst for more—all the more so knowing that it’s never going to happen again.
“Things’ve been rough since that thing with Jeff’s catapult, huh?” Lena comments lightly. I bite down on the cigarette and say nothing. “Must’ve been amazing to be in the sky like that. You look as if you’re flying onscreen.”
“Not as if,” I say before I can think to bite away the words. “I was flying.”
“Must’ve been awesome—right up ‘til you hit the lake,” grins Lena, and I wonder if the wistfulness in her smile is something I’m imagining—me projecting my own feelings onto her.
“It was,” I whisper, taking the cigarette out of my mouth. “It really was.”
Suddenly, the thing tastes like cancer and disease and death. The coils are mocking grins and cruel laughs. I drop the scalding coal and crush it under my heel. Lena takes one last drag and does the same. She’s looking at me with a glint in her eyes that I’ve never seen there. I pretend not to notice.
“Greg’s worried about you,” she says suddenly.
I am taken aback for a moment, and then an ironic laugh bursts forth from my mouth. It makes an ugly sound, somewhere between a guffaw and a snort.
“And why doesn’t he talk to me? Have we backpedaled to high school? Shall I send my reply through Brian on a scribbled note torn out of a notebook?”
Lena smiles wryly. “He didn’t ask me to talk to you.”
“Then what are you trying to do?”
“To understand,” says Lena, and just like that the smile is gone. “I’m trying to understand how a little drunken fiasco with a home-made catapult could ruin your friendship just like that. I know Jeff’s a bit bitter—you did drag him through court—but you don’t even seem to want to change things.”
“You can’t understand.” After the words leave my mouth, I realize how childish that sounds. I won’t take it back.
Still Lena persists. “This isn’t the worst you’ve ever been injured pulling a stunt—remember that time with the cliff? It’s not even the first time you guys have gotten mixed up with the legal system. What the hell happened that you can’t just let it go like all the other stupid things you’ve gotten arrested for?”
“I persecuted them in court.”
It was a good question. I’d wondered it myself often enough. The wind changes direction, and this breeze carries something sweet and soft that tastes like the clouds.
I knew the answer, really. “Because the world was beautiful for a moment. And then it…wasn’t.” I wish that words weren’t so small.
Her eyes flash—she hasn’t understood. “You’re trying to get revenge over an adrenaline rush?”
She can’t believe it. Neither do I—because it was more than an adrenaline rush. It was flight. What words could do that justice?
But I don’t explain. She won’t understand, I know.
She’d tell me to go bungee jumping, or skydiving. I’ll explain that those are finite, with a near end right there, and she’ll roll her eyes.
So go to flight school, become a pilot, she’ll say.
It’s hardly the same thing to be flying inside a smooth metal box rigged with an engine, I’ll reply.
You know gliders? You can fly those in the open air with no engine. Just like you want.
But that wouldn’t be flight.
Parachuting. Hang-gliding. Parasailing! There’re any number of things to keep you and your damned adrenal gland happy!
All the ropes, all the weights on my body, and more than anything the knowledge that they’re there—how will that ever seem like flying after my moment in the air with nothing at all?
Are you trying to make yourself miserable? No, scratch that—you are. You’re determined to be miserable. This isn’t you.
This wasn’t me before. It’s me now.
Forget it, this is a waste of my time, she’d finally huff—though maybe I’m not giving her enough credit, maybe she’d argue a bit more—but in the end she’d leave.
I turn and walk away without another word.
“No, wait! I’m sorry, I’ll listen. I want to hear about it. Wait—your shift isn’t even over!”
Two more hours at a bar mixing drinks for whiny customers, mostly students who’ve just hit twenty-one and are overenthusiastic in their alcohol habits. Oh, joy. I can’t imagine why I’d want to miss that.
I haven’t drunk since that night, and it’s been getting harder to watch the kids around me at work. I wonder why I’ve been pushing through with my job at all.
The only positive thing to be said about living in a college town in the middle of nowhere is that it’s easy to find deserted places when you really need them. Tonight, I walk longer and further than I ever have, with no particular destination in mind.
I just need to go somewhere. Somewhere not here. Somewhere closer to there—closer to the sky.
I think about Jeff and Greg and Brian, and wonder if I ought to talk to them. The idea is drowned a moment later, because beyond all reason, against all rationale, the thought of what they’ve done to me sets my heart aflame.
But they’ve been my best friends since my first semester at university, and Lena’s two years with Greg have made her no less important in our little makeshift family. Family, I think. Family is supposed to trump everything in the end, except true love. Family is supposed to be more important than obsessions.
I’m not so far gone that I don’t realize that I’m obsessed. Seconds—mere seconds—and I throw myself into their memory every chance I get.
Light on the horizon. How long have I been walking? I look around me. It looks the same as anywhere else in these mountains, but I guess I’ve never been this far.
There isn’t any way I can see to climb any higher.
If only there were a cliff—on a cliff high enough, I could fly forever. No water to break my fall this time—a proper flight that would last for my eternity. I wonder for a moment if I’ve gone insane. But I don’t want to die, so maybe not. I just want to fly.
Of course, these mountains aren’t like that anyway—smooth and gentle mounds rounded at every edge and covered in greenery. I’m at the top of a hill: I can only assume so, because there’s no other path that will bring me closer the sky.
But even here, the sky is obscured by the branches of the trees around me. The weight of the Earth shackles me through my feet. Something catches in the back of my mouth. My throat is closed, and I can’t breathe. My eyes burn.
It all clears with the self-assurance that pine trees aren’t hard to climb. I reach for the lowest branch of the ancient tree beside me. It’s too high. I wrap my arms around the thick trunk as far as they reach and scramble with my feet. Earth is heavy, pulling me down.
Why have I been blaming my friends—my dearest family? Gravity is my foe.
A new fire blazes in my chest for a month’s worth of useless accusations and irreparable damage. I use it to fuel my arms and legs, and amidst scratches on my arms and palms and a tear in my jeans, I’ve managed to pull myself onto the lowest branch. Triumph sings through my muscles and bones, because Gravity isn’t winning this time.
It gets easier from there, but my limbs aren’t used to this much exertion and finally I am forced to rest to quell the shaking of my arms. I do so straddling a branch with my back against the trunk. The wind is a little stronger and Earth has fallen away a little further, and hope burns in me like an ember slowly rekindled.
The branches are thinner now; they creak under my weight. I pick the longest of the thicker branches and crawl up its length, scrambling around knots and over protruding branches amongst the tangle of the green needles that are beginning to redden my skin. The ember bursts into a small flame that carries me each forward scoot by scoot.
The world opens before me, and it is green and brown and red and yellow and gray and far away. I don’t realize until the fear leaves me that I was afraid after all. With the fear the fire that blazed against everything—gravity, my friends, the world—is gone without so much as a trace of ash.
The wind whips my hair around me, urging me to my feet atop the branch. All my senses take in everything as it is—from the icy fingers of the wind to the trees and roads and buildings that are all tiny specks below; from the fresh scent of pine and morning and autumn to the soft songs of chickadees and the hoarse caws of crows—and I love everything around me with all my heart. I open my arms, knowing that for the first time, I’m feeling the entire world.
When I open my eyes, the first thing that hits me is the gravity. A close second the darkness. Third comes the coarse texture of cloth against my arm, leg and cheek, and with it all the rest. My leg is numb. I roll over to relieve it.
I close my eyes; my body is still humming with the exhilaration, with the lightness. I can feel the air, dancing around me as I rise and fall through the sky as I please. But gravity and darkness are too powerful, in the end. The memories fade by the second.
I give up and open my eyes. I succumb to the magnetism of reality. The clock by my bed says it’s nearly sunrise. I think of checking my email; I choose not to. There will be an email waiting for me from my boss. I won’t be forgiven for leaving on-shift like that. There might be one from Lena, too. Maybe she’ll have covered for me.
I can’t figure which would be worse. I don’t enjoy the curdling in my throat, so I close my eyes instead. I beg silently for the embrace of flight once more—just one more time, I think.
I’ll be better tomorrow. I’ll find a job. Today, I want to fly.
I consider taking a walk like the one from my dream. Maybe I’d find a tree like that, perfect for a climb. Maybe I’d reach the top. Maybe I could fly.
It’s a silly thought. I’d die trying. It’s not worth death, I think. I suspect that falling off a tree wouldn’t feel remotely like flying anyway. The ground would never go anywhere but closer.
Edward Lee's work has appeared in Transcendent Visions. He has taken writing courses at NYU-SPS. He lives in New York City with his family and two cats.
Big Bang Blonde
She was a short, blonde girl with big eyes and small lips that had a secret thing for Asian guys. She lived with her parents in Korea for the first twelve years of her life, her father was a diplomat, and she just grew accustomed to the features of the people around her. Her family moved over to the states, just in time for puberty, and she dated a few guys in high school and college, tall and white, but she secretly wanted a boy named Hak Kwon to approach her all through high school, and there was another Asian guy in college, but each one never did approach her. Asian guys never made advances towards her, even though she would try to encourage them; so, she secretly watched Korean dramas and K-pop videos swooning over Kim Su Hyun and Big Bang. She never told any of her white friends about her thing for Asian guys or pop culture, and they would never have guessed it. It struck Rachel’s friends as odd that she was so picky with men, letting the attentions of well-to-do, good looking men go unnoticed, but they just thought she was a snob that thought no one was good enough for her.
Rachel was a chief technology officer at a start-up company that was trying to make breakthroughs in customizing websites to their visitors’ preferences, and she worked with computer science engineers mostly from Washington State University. There was this one guy she had her eye on, smart, but awkward and introverted. "Why were they always introverted?" she thought. His name was Christopher Kim, and he was good at writing code, not brilliant, but there was something about him that said to Rachel, he’s different, or not, but you should definitely find out. So, she would do tacky things like stand hunched over his shoulder while he was at his computer working or compliment him and ask him for his input excessively like he was some Yoda-type guru master, and she his padawan. It took Christopher a while, it was obvious to all his co-workers by then, but he caught on, and he asked her out for coffee to discuss “ideas for the company.”
Rachel was excited at the prospect of her first quasi-date with a cute Asian guy, and for their date, she wore a sleeveless blouse under her power suit, and she wore a skirt that was slightly shorter than usual. After work, she walked with Christopher to the coffee house, where employees of the start up would sometimes hang out or have impromptu meetings, and they found a table. Christopher, eschewing small talk, spent the whole time discussing his ideas for gearing websites to their visitors with simple either or questionnaires that would categorize the user broadly and specifically all at the same time. Questions like Beatles or Elvis? Biggie or Tupac? Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg? Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft? He had a list of questions that Rachel scrolled and scrolled through, on Christopher’s Surface Pad; the questions cross referenced themselves when you clicked on an answer. He said these questionnaires would, “Put an emphasis on taste, personality, rather than user history and inclination. And it wouldn’t be a long list of things to like and dislike that bores most website users. We could make the questionnaires easy and fun, and the questionnaires of course would already be pre-customized with the first few questions based on the user’s website history.”
Rachel went home after their “meeting” was over and fed her dog. She checked her email. In her inbox was an email from Christopher. She opened it. It was the list of questions and a thank you at the end.
After their “meeting,” Rachel treated Christopher with a coldness unique to attractive blondes. Christopher was puzzled--she seemed interested in his ideas at the coffee house--that she didn’t want to go over his ideas in depth or at a meeting with others, and mentioned it to her; she coldly told him, “There are a set of approaches including yours that I’m thinking about proposing to the chief operating officer, and I will get back to you, meaning I will contact you, if your proposal is brought up or develops any type of traction, Chris.”
“Okay, Rachel. Just checking.”
Water off a duck’s back, Rachel thought as Christopher went back to his desk. Rachel wanted to ignore Christopher and shuttle his ideas, but his ideas were the best approach anyone at the start-up had come up with, and she needed to hand in something to the chief operating officer soon; she could give him Christopher’s intuitive, innovative approach or she could hand him the drivel that all the other ideas amounted to, including derivative approaches or ones that tested the propriety of collecting user information and history. Running out of time, she used Christopher’s ideas as the major principle of her proposal, taste and personality over user history and inclination, and the chief operating officer, whom she had spoken to all of once before, called her and told her, her proposal was brilliant, and he wanted the people behind it working on a prototype ASAP.
Rachel called Christopher into her office the next morning. She told him about her meeting with the chief operating officer and how he loved his idea, and she wanted to start a prototype of Christopher's idea and test it, and she wanted him to take on an advisory role. It was basically a slap in the face, but he was ebullient, so surprised that she had actually taken his ideas seriously that he told her he would love this advisory position and that he had no problems with it. This surprised Rachel. It was his idea and he was perfectly content to watch on the sidelines as other people configured and implemented it. He didn’t even care that Rachel was taking all of the credit for his work.
“Okay,” Rachel said. “I love team players, Christopher, and you’re definitely a team player. I and a core group are going to expand on your questions, and I’ll send you an email of what we thought up. You can tell me what you think.”
Another slap, he wouldn’t be active at internal meetings.
“Okay,” he said delighted.
At the first internal meeting, the brain trust could only expand on Christopher’s list by one question. John Lennon or Bob Dylan? They could categorize the Lennon answerers as admirers of youthful iconic figures, and the Dylan answerers as admirers of icons you could grow old with. It was a good start that excited the group until they realized that was all they could come up with. The brain trust even suggested by the third unproductive meeting that they didn’t need any more questions that the original list with the one new question was enough. Rachel wasn’t sure and she called Christopher after the meeting was over. She told him that the meetings were going nowhere and:
“Do you think our one question is enough to complete your questionnaire, Chris?”
“I’ve thought of five more, since we last talked,” Christopher said.
“What are the questions?”
“I’ll tell you if you give me more control over the project.”
“Deal. Let me hear the questions.”
“First question, Batman or Superman?”
“And how do you define each answer?”
“The Batman choosers believe you have to work for everything in life. Batman is a human being with no special powers, whose training and perseverance make him a comic book hero. These people want products or information that will improve them in some way. And the Superman choosers believe you’re just born with it.”
“Okay what’s the next one--you know what, in fact, let’s do this face to face instead of over the phone.”
“You want me to get on Skype.”
“How about you come to the office, I’m still here, and you bring some coffee, milk, no sugar."
After Christopher had bought two large coffees at the coffee house, he showed up outside the company office. He was greeted at the door by Rachel, who locked the door after him. They went to her office and went over his questions, and the two of them, with a chemistry and simpatico akin to two radio talk show hosts who are great at bouncing ideas off each other and complementing the other’s ideas, came up with twenty five more questions and their implicating answers.
When it was getting past the wee hours of the morning and their back and forth was starting to peter out after hours of energetic talk, Rachel said, “It’s getting late.”
“It's two twenty,” Christopher agreed, looking at his watch.
“Thanks so much for this,” Rachel said, laying her hand on top of Christopher’s hand. Christopher blinked and then Rachel kissed him. Christopher far from shying away was emboldened, until Rachel had to resist him and ask him to stop. She thought it an odd contradiction that he was so reluctant to make a move, but once a move was made he could barely control himself. Christopher settled himself and said he would go home. He asked Rachel if she needed a ride. Rachel said thanks, but it wasn’t necessary.
Rachel didn’t leave after Christopher left. She decided to sleep in her office, which wasn’t unusual for her. She reclined in her chair, her ego gratified that Christopher did have romantic, sexual interest in her. Closing her eyes, sleeping, she dreamt she was a Venus fly trap and then a spider spinning her prey in webbing. She dreamt she was spinning and webbing the boy group Big Bang and Christopher impersonating a pop star, Christopher saying, “It’s Halloween. That’s why I’m dressed up. Stop and get me out of this.” But Rachel ignored him and kept spinning her web around Christopher and hung him on her web, the sixth and final member of Big Bang.
Afterwards, she woke up to the bustle of people outside of her office, talking, walking by. Nancy a female assistant came into her office saying, “Didn’t mean to wake you, Rachel. I was wondering if you wanted me to schedule another questionnaire meeting?”
“Yes, and I think it would be a good idea if Christopher joined us.”
"I’ll get that meeting set up. When do you want to start?”
“When I’ve had my coffee and check on a few things, half an hour from now.”
Nancy nodded and closed the door. Rachel turned on her iPad and Googled: Big Bang. She slipped on her ear buds and whispered the lyrics to Big Bang's outlandish videos. From outside she looked like she was talking to herself energetically. Christopher, who was looking at her from his desk, thought, "Rachel or credit for my idea and a promotion?" Rachel inadvertently looked at him; he looked away.
Justice McCray grew up in the Hudson Valley and moved to Orlando, FL, to study creative writing. His work has appeared in Exposed Literary Magazine. In his free time, McCray enjoys spontaneously singing in grocery stores.
Reaching the Sunset
It wasn’t long ago when everything was perfect. The sun’s tanning glow would twinkle upon the golden hairs beginning to bloom from my arm, rising in synchronicity. I can remember the grass tickling my ankles as I ran unshod until I fell, and was consumed in a blanket of green. I rolled around and laughed until my breath became short and the rapid knocking of woodpeckers fluttered the clearing. Each year the hollow holes in the trees became more visible, and I always thought one day I would climb into one, and never come out.
As cold as I am, I can feel the sweat dribble down my body, rolling along my uneven canvas, dripping down onto the thin white scroll. It writes my testaments with each movement I make. The noise is unsettling, like a child trying desperately to unravel a candy bar in silence, inadvertently drawing attention to himself. I hold my breath to prevent any unnecessary movement and struggle not to swing my legs as they dangle from the ledge. The door thrusts open.
“Did I wake you up?” Other words followed but I am too startled to make them out.
I pull myself up trying to regain my composure. What was just an empty room had become the center for all excitement. My heart pounded as I felt my forearm become constrained. I feel the rhythm in my chest crescendo as the pressure on my limb escalates.
A perfect time to test my blood pressure.
The fire alarm was blaring and I raced out of the kitchen followed by the screeching sound of wood scraping tile. I placed the chair I dragged along with me against the hallway wall, as I was too short to reach the boisterous disc hovering above me. I didn’t understand why the alarm would not turn off when I pressed the button. The obnoxious ringing left my head pounding, so I pulled the detector off the wall and proceeded to take out the batteries.
I begrudgingly made my way back into the kitchen to find smoke whistling from the stove. I quickly turned off the stove to see the charred remains of my lunch. The grey bellowing from the not so golden brown grilled cheese laughed at me. Well done. I shut the kitchen door as to not let the smell of smoke erode the house. My stomach growled and so I settled for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My head was still pounding as I spread the peanut butter across the bread. Though the smoke seemed to dissipate, the kitchen was still foggy. I remember knocking the jar of jelly onto the floor. I followed.
“We’re going to have to run some tests”
“That’s why I’m here.” I smirked. I could feel Doctor Sanghin’s eyes roll as he left the room, clipboard in hand. “Sorry, I’m nervous” I proceeded to tell the once again vacant room. I watch the clock.
The fields were riddled with mushrooms. I remembered it had rained for three days and the air was kind enough to leave the scent of fresh dew. The day’s end drew near and I knew the best sunsets happened after large storms. I sauntered gingerly towards the Westwind river, hopscotching my way around the fungi. Mother warned me about how some mushrooms are poisonous. I was always fascinated by them, but I was afraid of what Mama would do to me if she found out if I touched one. Her firm hand combined with leather band she proudly wore around her waist was far more potent than any deadly fungus.
The sky was burned with the strong glow of embers dancing off a fire; a vibrant sea of red. I raced through the trees, laughing as the ivy tickled my arms. The grass beneath me turned into a bed of pebbles, they grew as I chased the sun. Waves crashed upon the boulders, twinkling as the water reflected the beauty of my purpose. I sat down and was greeted with a cold handshake that later left my whole body shivering. I smiled as I watched the sun evanesce.
I can feel my skin tingle with anxiety while I wait for the bad news, I open my eyes because reminiscing did not make me feel better. Reflecting on the most memorable moments in my life made me realize that I was always alone. I know that my past is not my future, and maybe I will find the love of my life as soon as I leave this cage softly decorated with crayon drawings to make one forget the stench of misery that permeates every wall in this building.
I focus on the thought of meeting my soulmate. The idea of just having a best friend is so greatly absurd that I burst into laughter. Doctor Sanghin walks in. He opens the door slowly, as if not to startle me. I only wish he was that considerate earlier. He sees me laughing and I once again try to compose myself. He tries his best to smile but his face is as pale and depressing as the wallpaper in the waiting room.
“Do you have anybody you like to talk to? Friends or family. I strongly urge you to call them.”
“Can I just watch the sunset?” I replied with my penultimate breath.
“It’s 2:30 in the afternoon.”
With a passion for storytelling spawning before he even could write, Pete Cotsalas, a Massachusetts native, does not feel accomplished unless he has written daily. Fiction is his passion. With a BA in English/Creative Writing he hopes to milk all the use possible out of this basic credential, and dreams of the world reading and enjoying his work. He is an avid reader and researcher in his spare time. To inspire himself, he often contemplates “If it exists, I can write about it.”
Fire from the Afterlife
Massive lion’s paws struck ground as the Manticore leapt from atop the boulder. Larger than Glee anticipated, it towered over he and Froman. Its humanoid face was unnerving. Extending from the small of its back was a stinging appendage, like a gigantic scorpion tail. The stinger was retracted, but flexed, anticipating provocation. Clearing his throat, Glee attempted at communication. “What is your name?”
Perplexed, the Manticore stared upon him. “Name?” it repeated. “Names are for spectators. I have no name.”
Befuddled by this response, Glee was enlightened by Froman. “Manticores were purely crafted for recreational battling. Overlords did not assign names, only numbers and rankings.”
“Are you a male, or female?” asked Glee. It was difficult to judge from the face, several feet above him.
Curling its stinger, in an apparent gesture of confusion, the Manticore replied “My kind was not created for procreation. We have no discernible gender.”
Unconcerned with petty introductions, Froman extended his hand with the uncorked vile of collected venom. “We come peaceably, on a quest. Do you recognize this venom, Manticore? I know your kind can identify the essence of others.”
Observantly, the beast sniffed the vile. “I do. That poison belongs to my brother.”
Froman spoke to Glee. “Do not scrutinize that, Glee. He overstates. All Manticore were brethren, such as my Kinship.” Mistrust shot from his eyes like arrows, leering at the Manticore. “They were also masterful manipulators.”
“That trait is specialized for combat,” the Manticore said with pride. “It was factored into our design after the Chimera. Creators determined flaws present in the Chimera derived from their gender, leading to ability and desire to mate. When the creators formulated us, they discarded these deterring components of our credo.”
“I hope you can forgive a simple observation,” Glee said cautiously, looking up at the tall beast. “It seems that you have a bit of a superiority complex.”
Lowering its head, the Manticore flared its nostrils and narrowed its eyes. Fearful he had offended the extinct monstrosity, Glee cowered. However, the Manticore simply surveyed them. “Visitors from the realm of living,” it surmised. “The two of you are not dead. I sense this. Keen sense of detection is another gift Manticore possess. Somehow you have entered the world of dead willingly for you quest. While it is not in my nature to be helpful, this intrigues me. I can take you to the Manticore who expelled that venom. Presumably, you need his blood to cure whomever it has infected. That is your quest, yes?”
Under assumption, Froman and Glee approached the trees. Flapping its wings in protest, the Manticore blocked their way. “Allow me to lead. Others are much more apt to tear your souls to shreds, for the sheer fun of it than listen to you as I have.”
“How many of you are there?” asked Glee.
“Dozens, nearly one hundred,” the Manticore replied with its back turned. Bat wings stood folded at its side as it led the way through the trees.
Froman whispered to Glee behind his hairy hand. “We should follow it. Since you and I are not real souls, we would actually die if confronted by the rest of the colony.”
Glee chuckled and attempted to make light of the situation. “Our souls would not have far to travel if we were to die her.” Froman scowled, and followed the Manticore. Glee caught up to him. “You do not find joy in many areas, do you Froman?” he asked with a furrowed brow. “Collected tension seems in need of release.”
“Are you, a healer?” Froman grumbled, eyeing the Manticore’s swaying poison-tipped tail cautiously.
Glee realized something. “You called me Glee a moment ago,” he said to Froman, as they followed the Manticore.
Froman shrugged. “Your name, is it not?”
“Yes, it is the first time you addressed me by it. You have only referred to me as “Enforcer” since you and I met.”
Grinding his rotting teeth, Froman muttered. “Do not scrutinize that either, Enforcer.”
As they walked at the Manticore’s side, it looked down at Froman with its yellow eyes, in a similar way Glee tended to look at a set of footprints, or arrowhead during an investigation. “I sense you are a Wolf. I have always admired the fearlessness of your species. Legacy of perseverance and overcoming oppression you established.”
Confused, Froman inquired. “You know of Wolf Folk? I find that odd… The Chimera we encountered previously found my scent outlandish.”
The Manticore tilted its head in a shrug, ruffling its lion mane. “This Chimera must have been a breeding mother, confined in her life. Never saw the inside of a battle arena, I suppose. Kismet, here we are.” In a large clearing, they came upon a primitive structure. Walls made of tree trunks and branches stood lopsided, unhindered due to lack of wind in the Death Realm. Grass within the framework was torn up, and lined with footprints. “What is this layout?” asked Glee.
“It is our amphitheater,” announced the Manticore, proudly. “My kind constructed it ourselves upon banishment to this place.”
“Sensible,” Froman said with a nod, surveying the arena. “All Manticore knew in life was combat for sport. Only stands to reason they would continue it in this realm. But I do not understand. What have Wolves to do with battle arenas?”
“You do not know?” the Manticore seemed genuinely surprised. “More time must have transpired among the living than I thought. Wolf, you do not know that your kind was among those compelled to do battle with others for purposes of viewership in the arenas? Once Wolf Folk were derived by fluke, it was decided by the creators to experiment with their strength and abilities. Wolves from the Hills were relocated by the hundreds, to engage in combat with Chimera, Griffins, and Manticore before audience.”
Thoroughly appalled, Froman glared up at the Manticore. “Wolves were forced to battle to death, for the recreation of the warlocks?!” Glee heard a growl in Froman’s voice as he spoke. For egomaniacal, headstrong chauvinists such as Froman, passage of time had little bearing on such travesties. Tremors of rage writhed Froman. “Did you take Wolf lives on the floors of an arena?” he asked the Manticore.
The Manticore shook its head. “No, that is precisely why I have brought you to the amphitheatre. That venom is my own.” It jabbed his tail downward, indicating the vile. “Opportunity stands for you here, Wolf.” With his long stinging appendage, he gestured at the arena. “I wish to make a wager. In centuries among the living, I fought many foes in coliseums such as this, and prevailed. Griffins, Chimeras, even dragons, I was pitted against many, and always emerged victorious. Since exile, we Manticore primarily fight one another. As you can imagine, this becomes humdrum. I have yet to combat one adversary. Although a champion, I was never given occasion to combat a Wolf’s battle malice. I challenge you, Wolf. Battle in this amphitheater, satisfy my craving and you shall have my blood.”
Glee gasped. “Froman, you heard him. He is a champion. What if he kills you?”
Ignoring Glee, Froman stripped off his tattered robes, and dropped them to the ground. With triumph, he stepped into the amphitheatre with the Manticore. “Mortal Froman!” called Glee. “You are mortal! He is not.”
On either end of the amphitheatre, the combatants stood. A sly, eager expression fixated on the Manticore’s visage, like an anxious collector eyeing an artifact for his acquisition. Flexing its claws against the soil, the Manticore announced the terms. “Befitting of your endeavor, first blood drawn shall declare the victor. We bellow upward to the sky to commence, as in the days of old.”
Jaws compressing with determination, Froman nodded to show he understood. Extending his arms, he balled his fists and closed his eyes. Froman transformed. Bones cracked and quaked as they reassembled. Bodily hair, brown as tree bark engulfed his body. Shoulders broadened. Spine arched, as hair extended from his back, and Froman grew in height. Growling became more animalistic, as Froman’s unshaven man face elongated into a snout. Yellowed teeth were replaced by white, spearheads of fangs. Glee had never seen his entire Wolf form. It was horrid. Upon reaching full form, Froman howled upward at the twilight.
Initiating the fight, the Manticore lunged, across the amphitheater, claws and teeth extended, bat wings spread for leverage. With a vicious swat with his clawed forepaw, Froman deflected the attack and galloped to the side. Propelling himself forward from his hind legs, he leapt onto the airborne Manticore as it recomposed itself. With roars and grunts, the two beasts crashed onto the ground, pawing at one another. Glee watched helplessly from the side as Froman pinned the Manticore, then the latter overtook him. Jaws snapped. Torn clumps of red and brown hair littered the arena, but no blood yet. Forcing Froman off, with a mighty thrust, the Manticore utilized its arsenal. A stream of flame billowed from its jaws as it roared. Although Froman dodged the fire, the far wall of the amphitheatre caught flame. It spread slowly along the wooden framework as Froman gained the upper hand again, forcing the Manticore on its back. Through the smoke, Glee saw with horror the maneuver the Manticore enacted. Like a snake cornering a chipmunk, the long stinger slithered from under the dead beast and around Froman’s left flank. Unnoticed by Froman, desperately trying to keep his foe in a stranglehold, the stinger took position, and aimed for his back. “Lookout, Froman!” Glee yelled. It was too late. The sharp tip of the stinger sank into Froman’s back. Collapsing to his knees, Glee yelled “No!”
Again and again, the stinger struck, plunging into the Wolf’s back. Although Froman grunted in mild annoyance, no blood flowed. Glee realized the hide beneath his companion’s fur did not seem penetrated. Impatiently reaching behind him, Froman grasped the stinger with his paw. Pulling it over his shoulder, he brandished the appendage in the face of the puzzled Manticore. “Not silver,” growled Froman’s voice, indicating the stinger tip. With both forepaws, he used the Manticore’s own stinger as a rope, and pressed it under the larger beast’s chin, holding it to the ground by the neck. Froman slashed his jagged claws across his throat. Blood spilled. With a howl, the Manticore submitted.
Snarling in the Manticore’s face, Froman said “Leverage was not in your favor this time, champion. Death is inevitable. Life is worth the fight.”
Hand coated in the Manticore blood, Froman leapt over a portion of the arena wall, falling to ashes. Resuming his hominid form, and reeking of singed fur, Froman approached Glee. “Here, mortality is a talisman,” he told Glee. “Possession of life provides me with more to lose. Above all else, loss is something I cannot tolerate. Give me an empty vile Enforcer.”
From one of the many pockets of his tunic, Glee retrieved a specimen sized vile. “I had forgotten. Silver is your only weakness. He was never a threat without it.”
“Fire may have done more damage with better marksmanship,” stated Froman, surveying the flaming inferno surrounding the wounded Manticore. His palm emptied blood into the vile, which Glee corked. “Let us go collect Ivanna and Myria, and be rid of this realm.” Glee felt he had not heard a wiser suggestion in days.
As Froman and Glee prepared to depart the clearing, they halted. Ears perked at the sound of many approaching footstops. Trees trembled. One by one, Manticores emerged from the woods. Over a dozen entered the clearing of the amphitheater. Noise from the bloody match must have beckoned them from their colony. The pack of Manticore stomped on the fire engulfing the wooden walls of Froman’s victory scene. A particularly large one gazed upon its whimpering brother. “Champion bleeds.” They turned toward Glee and Froman. Vengeance gleamed in their yellow eyes. “Our treasured amphitheatre is burned. Bandits have taken our champions blood, brethren. Get them!”
“What do we do?” Glee whispered to Froman.
Even in his Wolf form, and with all his mortality, Froman could not combat this many Manticore. He grasped a branch from the ground, ablaze with the Manticore’s flame, thrusting it forward as twelve enraged Manticore closed in. “Run!” Manticore gave them chase.
The enclave of huge beasts in pursuit, Froman and Glee sprinted downhill. The mass of lost souls appeared like a shadow on the landscape. Near the Wayward souls, they saw Ivanna and Myria. “We have the blood. There is no time for an explanation. Run!” Leading the way, Froman carried the flaming torch through the Wayward. Masses of souls fell and jumped to the side, fearful of the fire. Growls and pounding paws followed them. Glancing behind him, Glee saw the Manticore kicking souls and trampling them in their chase. Their makeshift path cut through the dense mass of people, until they finally saw the mountainside. The cave they accessed through seemed to beckon them. Bursts of hot breath from a Manticore directly behind him burned Glee’s neck. All the while, he maintained tight hold on the vile of blood. “Come on!” yelled Froman. He jumped forward toward the cave, holding the torch above his head. Froman shouted the incantation, and the four of them leapt into the mouth of the cave.
They sprawled onto green grass. Midday sun hurt their eyes after adjustment to permeated twilight. Back in the realm of living, they panted, regaining composure. Glee looked vigilantly at the mouth of the cave. No Wayward souls, or bloodthirsty Manticore stood beyond, only darkness. Chliste stood before them, watching them stand and brush themselves off. Ivanna breathed deeply, looking hopefully at Glee. “Blood, you have it?” she gasped.
Nodding, Glee retrieved the crimson vile from his tunic. “Here it is. Back at Dli province, we can remedy your father. He shall be off his deathbed, and back on the throne.” A smile of relief overtook Ivanna. She and Glee embraced.
Shaking himself off, Froman looked at Chliste, who had not said a word. “Care to welcome us back from the dead, Golem?” asked Froman.
The fiery torch Froman wielded at the Manticore lay smoldering on the ground. Chliste surveyed it with fascination. “Seems you bring back more with you than expected,” he said.
“Fire, what of it?” asked Froman.
“Flames of the Death Realm,” Chliste whispered. “Such a thing has never entered our realm. Observe.” He picked up the torch and held the fire to a patch of dry brush. Although the fire touched the brown vegetation, it did not ignite. “Fire from the world beyond,” muttered Chliste, intrigued. “It cannot burn anything in our world. Do you realize what you have managed to carry into our realm, the magical properties it may contain? Embers from this burning tree limb contain potential for the most powerful weapon, perhaps enough to ward off the Warlocks, and their insidious progeny. We shall preserve this.” With a wave of his hand, Chliste encapsulated the fire in a blue transparent orb. It burned within, as if on a mystical candlestick.
Nadja Maril grew up in Baltimore and lives in Annapolis Maryland. . She is the author of hundreds of feature articles for newspapers and magazines, two reference books on antique American lighting, and two children’s books illustrated with paintings by her father, Herman Maril. She has served as magazine editor at publications that include Victorian Homes, What’s Up? Media, and Chesapeake Taste but her first love has always been writing poetry, fiction, and memoir. This is her second short story published in Scarlet Leaf Review.
Keep Me Posted
I confess. I visit her page almost every day. She is my mother. How else am I going to see her? It’s not as if I could just drop by the house, (it’s been rented to strangers for the past year), or pick up the phone and give her a call. She’s dead. But she looks very much alive when I visit her Facebook page. I see the profile picture she chose with her arms around me, and my younger brother Steve. Behind her profile photo is a picture taken during our visit to Yellowstone Park showing one of the bubbling iridescent hotspots near the geysers. Along the margins are photos of her hundreds of friends, favorite pages, books, and music.
I read the comments friends continue to make. And that is something, a tribute to the strength and power of her spirit. We tell her, my brother and I, about our grades, the winning goal, the dress I wore as a bridesmaid at cousin Megan’s wedding.
Her friends put up posts about their kids’ graduations, the parties she missed, their need for her heartfelt advice. They extol the virtues of what a great teacher she was, and write about how they miss her. They post old photographs. They reminisce about all the great times they shared in high school, college, a friend’s 40th birthday bash last year, the fun they had skinny-dipping in the neighbor’s pool. And while none of these trips down memory lane help me, because I’m too sad and angry thinking how she won’t be at my high school graduation next month, I read on, and pretend she is still living within that page.
Forty- four years old!! That was her age when the cancer tightened its grip. Forty -four years old. Why did she have to die so young? Not fair. Not fair at all. But then I remember what Mom told me, “Whoever said that life is fair?”
Hah! Life wasn’t fair to Mom. My take is that she was just too nice. She was so nice that her husband, my dad, decided to leave her for his secretary when my brother Steven was two-years old. Talk about bad timing. Being a single mom, a working mom with a five-year-old and a two-year-old, to take care of was not easy. But Mom took it in stride. I never heard her complain. Always the optimist saying stuff like, “maybe it was for the best” and, “now I have more time for you two and my students.”
Not that I’m sure she didn’t dream of getting married again, but it never happened. Fortunately my grandma didn’t live too far away, and Stevie liked daycare. Dad took us plenty of weekends, which meant I’m sure she went out on dates. Even had a boyfriend for a while. We called him Uncle Ed. He dated Mom for two years, but he left, only to come back when it was too late and the cancer had spread. Meanwhile three weekends a month we were stuck with Dad and that new witch of a wife, Sonia, pregnant with our new half brother. Yes, she acts nice, but let’s face it, she is a home-wrecker.
Which it is why it really sucks that someone, someone named Helen Lapor, would write something on Mom’s page, a Facebook post so strange and so unkind. A post on Mom’s page that says: I’m so disappointed. I saw “your book”. Yours???? What happened to honesty and giving credit where credit is due?
What does this woman mean? What is she talking about? How can she be disappointed ? Mom’s children’s book? Mom taught first grade and yes, did I fail to mention that in addition to being everyone’s favorite teacher, she was an author. She wrote a children’s book and even won an award. I remember the newspaper article, framed and hanging in the family room with Mom’s picture and the header, “Appropriately written by a first grade teacher for first graders.” The review goes on to say, “just on their level, so accessible, simple and fresh.” Mom was so proud.
So who is this Helen Lapor who wrote the post… and how can she be a Facebook friend???
Doesn’t she know Mom is dead?
I send her a message via Facebook: Helen- perhaps you don’t realize that my Mom Shelley Durham died last year. Yes although she appears very much alive on the page if you read some of the earlier postings you’ll see links to her obituary and remarks made at her funeral… I’m guessing you were either a colleague or one of her students? Were you making comments about her book My Rainbow or did I misunderstand?
Oh Sally I’m so sorry. I didn’t know of your mother’s death. I’ve been out of the country, teaching English in Japan. I’m recently married and have a little girl of my own. Your mother was my first grade teacher. I happened to come across the book in the library and I was surprised. Nothing more to say. You’re in my thoughts. Wishing you success and a good life.
Her response sounded a little too pat. It bothered me so I emailed Dad, Do you know anything about a student of Mom’s named Helen Lapor? (maybe her married name) I’m guessing she was in her class 17 years ago. Do you know what she means by posting that snarky remark “Your Book” in quotes and that comment “ I’m so disappointed”
His response: Sally your Mom had lots of students and that was a long time ago.
Is he skirting the subject? According to my calculations he was still married to Mom when that woman Helen was in her class. Did Mom talk about her students with Dad? She’d tell me about some of them. There was a little girl named Peggy the year she first got sick who baked her a basket of cookies. They were as hard as rocks, but Mom insisted we try to eat them. Cute kid. She came to Mom’s memorial service. Mom talked about Peggy a lot. Did she ever talk about Helen Lapor? I’d be too young to remember.
The next day I get another text from Dad.
Hey did you want some fish? We were really successful out on the bay last Sunday and I put a bunch of fillets in the freezer… rockfish, your favorite. Let me know.
There is no mention of the previous question about Helen Lapor in my dad’s text but she is still on my mind. Her words continue to bother me and he is no help. Why am I not surprised?
I send a text to my brother who is doing the typical high school freshman performance of playing too hard and studying too little. He cares more about his friends and sports than anything else. He’s probably buried with schoolwork, trying to play catch-up, so he can bring home some decent grades. Will he even have time to answer me?
Hey squirt do you possibly remember Mom talking about a former student by the name of Helen Lapor? I know it’s a long shot but thought that I’d ask.
His response is brief. Who????
I want to write on her Facebook page anonymously, “You bitch” but she probably wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t understand how I feel that she has invaded Mom’s sacred space. Dad doesn’t seem to get it either and would never get it, never even understand the reason why I find him so disappointing although he tried to be a help when Mom got sick. Probably just feeling guilty. That’s men for you. No wonder Mom never remarried. Just watched, from a distance, while Dad started a new family with three more kids. So many of my friends have dads on their second and third marriages. I’m not sure I ever want to get married. At least Dad got stuck with all the bills. Good thing he makes a lot of money being a lawyer.
I visit Helen Lapor’s Facebook page, even though I’m not a friend so I see very little. But I do take note that she has a website and she’s listed herself as a writer and an artist. I thought she was an English teacher.
“Helen Lapor started writing and illustrating books as a young child. Her fascination with picture and words never ceased,” The text on the website begins and there’s an illustration that looks awfully familiar…It’s almost a sister to one of the illustrations in Mom’s book. How dare she plagiarize Mom’s work.
I wanted to take that page down. I tried to think of every possible password combination that Shelly would have used and came up dry. She always was so clever about such things. I even tried to find a way to contact the Facebook folks and explain, my ex-wife is dead and as a co-executor of her estate I find it in very bad taste to keep up a Facebook page when she is no longer living. But everything is so automated. There are no real people to talk to. It’s all about algorithms and computer codes. I assigned the task to my secretary who finally got through to them and sent them legal documentation to enable me to take the page down. The Facebook people, however, encouraged me to keep the page up as a “memorial page”. Evidently these memorial pages are now quite popular. And then the page became so important to our children, particularly Sally, that I thought I’d better leave it alone. There are some nice pictures there, Shelly with her beautiful smile and her radiating kindness.
It’s become a kind of shrine. In some countries families set up a group of photographs, statues, and light candles to honor their dead ancestors. Here in 2lst century America, we visit the deceased’s Facebook page.
I’m not much of a Facebook fan, but it is a way to keep in touch, at the very least to check on the kids and see what they’re doing, who their friends are, and what they deem to be important. So I play the game and pretend to be hip and cool. I maintain a Facebook page and visit theirs.
And now I have this predicament, which I can choose to ignore but which I fear will cause harm to someone I love, my children. To them, their mother was just about perfect, a model human being. But everyone has his or her flaws and Shelly was no different from everyone else. In the back of my mind I knew there was a danger in leaving that Facebook page up. Memories we embellish with positive kindness. Social media, however, that takes place in the present, in real time. And let’s face it; we live in a cutthroat world. Ever read some of those blogs out there and the comments people post?
Shelly wanted to be important, above everything else, and she always had to be in control of things. I think that’s why she enjoyed organizing the school year’s curriculum, setting up the bulletin board displays, scheduling the parent/teacher conferences and generally managing everything including our lives. She liked order. She didn’t like surprises.
She won teacher of the year on the state level more than once. Said she loved children so much, idolized children particularly the little ones during those formative years but that didn’t stop her from rejecting our child and ending our baby’s life.
I consider myself somewhat of a liberal, a registered Independent if you want to get technical about it. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but it was my baby too. My child that she decided she didn’t want, because two children were enough. My child, that she had suctioned and scraped out of her uterus one afternoon, only telling me days later because the bleeding wouldn’t stop.
“Were you ever planning to tell me?” I asked as I drove her that night to the emergency room. “Was I not part of the decision? What other secrets are you keeping?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” was all she said.
While I never visualized myself as the sort of man who would leave his wife and family, I had to. Our trust had been broken. And no I’m never going to tell Sally and Stevie about their mother’s abortion. Only my wife Sonia knows.
The relationship between Sonia, and me, well it was a natural progression. I was lonely. I couldn’t bring myself to be intimate again with Shelly, not after that night. I kept thinking of the mangled baby that never was, the baby denied. It made me angry and depressed. I knew all of Shelly’s good qualities, her buoyant optimism and her attention to all the little details of running a household. The way she seemed to remember everyone’s birthdays, always knew the right things to say. But I couldn’t forgive her. She even offered to go with me to counseling, and we did go together a few times. She had excuses for everything and went on and on about how children needed to be carefully planned and needed full care and attention. But then there was that other incident, the book.
“You can’t steal someone else’s idea, someone else’s work,” I told her.
“What are you talking about? It was my idea, my assignment. Plus this was years ago, something in my files, something I almost forgot about and then remembered when I met that publisher at the Academic Success Conference last year. It’s my connection. My moment for fame. Don’t you want this for me? Besides, they were just little kids. They’ve all moved on to other things ”
“But this little kid had a brilliant idea, a storyline so perfect that a publisher is interested and now this is the time when you step aside and own up to who really wrote the words.”
“I wrote the words. She dictated them or at least part of them. Do you think a seven year old knows how to spell?”
“And I suppose she dictated the pictures too?”
“They’re not going to use her pictures. They’ve hired an illustrator, someone with a name and reputation.”
“But I bet they took a look at her drawings for ideas…”
“Alan the world is filled with ideas. We steal each other’s ideas every day and wonder who thought of what first. It’s a collective imagination out there, shared stories we all should embrace.”
What a pile of bullshit. Her theft of someone else’s work, her absolute selfishness, broke the last thread that was holding together our marriage. After that, I knew it was over. Lucky for her, the true author never saw it when it was published. Her family must have moved out of the area and never saw the local publicity. Probably she was a teenager by the time the book came out and what teenager goes and reads children’s books? But now evidently she has seen it and what can any of us say. Shelly is dead. Long live Shelly and her reputation as an inspirational teacher and children’s book author. Not that she went on to write any more such books. But still she had the one, which is a lot more than many other aspiring authors can lay claim to. She has her name on that book. She has two wonderful children, I think, but maybe I am a bit prejudiced being their father. Plus she has a lot of friends who miss her.
So what do I do about that Facebook post? I don’t want to tarnish Sally’s image of her mother. It’s probably better that I don’t contact the woman, the former student. The less I claim to know, the better it is for me. I never planned to tell Sally or Steve anything about their mother’s flaws. It would only hurt them. Better they should remember her as perfect.
I visit Shelly’s Facebook page. Yesterday I posted an old photograph I found of Shelly and me while we were dating in college. I thought the kids would like to see it. How young and happy we looked. How naive and eager we were to experience all that life had to offer. I hope my children never have to experience the kind of pain Shelly put me through. I’ll try to protect them as best I can.
You’ve been tagged. I receive a notification by email. I’m in a photo on Shelley’s Facebook page. Even after her death, I can’t seem to free myself from her grip. I was at Steven’s high school graduation. I’m in the pictures he must have just posted. And while I’m on the page I see an old photograph of Alan and Shelly from their college days. Who posted that? Probably Sally put it up there to piss me off. I’m the only mother that she and Steven have but I’m certain Sally refers to me as the evil stepmother.
Step. Where did the name come from? I think of the word and I imagine climbing up a steep flight of stairs and gasping for breath, challenged by the task being the replacement parent. I think of Sisyphus doomed to the task of pushing a heavy boulder uphill and watching it slip back downwards, losing all the ground he thought he gained. I don’t think Sally will ever accept me. She’s too invested in the relationship she built with Shelly, to make space for me.
I think back to the first time our paths crossed. I don’t think Sally even liked me then. Alan had picked her up from Kindergarten and brought her to the office because Shelley had a doctor’s appointment. As soon as her father had closed the door to his office to make a phone call, she started peppering me with questions.
" Do you have any children at home?" It was a question I didn’t want to answer because I wanted children badly. I wanted to be married, thought I was pretty much engaged to the man I lived with for five years, my college boyfriend but how do you explain such things to a 5 year old?
“Do you have any children?” she asked again.
“Children,” I repeated, feeling a slight flush on my face of embarrassment.
“No,” I answered brightly. “But I happen to know you have a younger brother.”
“Yes, he’s a bother. Too little to be anything but annoying. Cries all the time.” She resumed her interrogation. “You aren’t married?”
“My what a nosy little girl you are.”
She persisted. “Have a boyfriend?”
“I used to have a boyfriend,” I found myself replying. “Had a boyfriend for many years but we broke up.” I turned and quickly grabbed a stack of paper plus some pens and highlighters from my desk. “How about you make some nice pictures,” I suggested, “Maybe a drawing of the office you can show your Mom and Dad later when you get home.
Sally was not easily distracted. “We have much nicer colored pencils and paper at home,” she told me, “besides, my parents know what this office looks like. My Dad is here every day. Do you work for him?”
“Yes I do and he’s very smart.”
She beamed. “Yes he is.”
Ah something we can agree on, I thought to myself.
“My mother is a teacher,” Sally told me proudly. “She teaches first grade.”
“Is she going to be your teacher?”
“Oh No, She’d be tempted to play favorites. No I’m going to have Mrs. Linntower, the other first grade teacher. Now I’m in kindergarten and I already know my alphabet and can read a few books.”
“Very impressive,” I told her.
She studied me closely, looked down at my hands and pointed at my fingers. ”I wish I could wear nail polish. My mother says it’s only for grown-ups who have time on their hands. Do you have time on your hands? Your hands don’t look old.”
I laughed. “I think what your Mom means are women with extra time to take care of their hands.” Sally still looked baffled by my explanation. I started over again. “Nail polish has to be applied and dried carefully or it gets all messed up, starts to chip, and then you need to get it redone. Women with busy schedules like your Mom don’t have that kind of time.”
“But you do.”
“Only occasionally, when I’m going somewhere special.”
“Is she bothering you?” Alan poked his head out of his office to check on his daughter, having finished his conference call.
“This charming young lady. Of course not,” I told him determined to show him I was confident and relaxed around children.
But inside I felt nervous and worried that Sally was on to me, knew just how much care I’d put into my appearance, all to impress her father, down to my nail polish.
The truth was I’d fallen in love. Yes, I knew he was married and had children but I could detect something wasn’t quite right at his home. . I rationalized my behavior by telling myself that Shelly really did not appreciate or truly love her husband.
At the time I saw my situation as both tragic and romantic. I’d already blown my chances at following the traditional love and marriage route when I wasted all those years living with Ivan. If I could at least be the love of someone’s life—Alan’s life, that’s all I wanted.
Every day I used to take extra care with my hair and make-up and the outfits I chose to wear to work, imagining possible conversation that might take place if our relationship went beyond the bonds of employer and employee.
I made a whole ritual of choosing my color for the day. I had a witchcraft calendar that gave you the colors of power, plus lucky numbers. I never played the lottery but I did check every night to see the color I should wear the following morning. I know it sounds silly. But maybe it worked because Alan started saying I was his favorite research assistant. Maybe it was more about timing.
Sometimes Shelly came into the office. She’d ask me to do some typing. It was common practice in the office for spouses to ask for secretarial help. She was putting together a children’s book proposal and trying to meet a deadline. One of the other teachers was out sick and she had a busy schedule. It was in the early days of color copiers. I had to go to a special printer who had the right machine to duplicate the sketches for illustrations and it was there that I noticed the work was not Shelly’s. There were too many pages signed Helen in big block letters. At least that’s what I suspected, and I mentioned my suspicions to Alan. He must have talked to her about it because when he came into work the next morning he looked flushed and angry. That afternoon we worked late and stayed to talk after the office was closed.
He began to look at me in a different way. We became real lovers, not a fantasy couple in my mind. Their marriage broke up shortly thereafter.
I look at Shelly’s Facebook page when I check on those photographs from Steven’s graduation and I see the posts from Helen Lapor—about the children’s book, the one Shelly pretty much stole from her, and it reminds me of what I stole from Shelly, a woman who didn’t have a very long life. Maybe I can at least give her some peace and find a way to take those posts from Helen down or remove the page all together.
I check Mom’s Facebook page. A close friend of hers writes: I missed not having you at this year’s Spring Blooms Party. Even though I was certain I heard your laughter in the crowd and know you are up in heaven watching over us. I think of you often.
I feel better. The positive words almost cancel out the anger I feel towards this Helen person and the post I feel has sullied my mother’s page.
But I can’t leave it alone. I send another message to this Helen. I write: I see that you are an aspiring author and an artist. My mother must have had some kind of influence on your life. Can we meet?
The next day I notice my brother Steven has posted a bunch of photographs from his high school graduation on Mom’s page. I thought he was busy studying, little twerp. He’s saved the racier pictures for his own page, the ones showing his friends partying and drinking afterwards. Doesn’t he know better? I told him to be careful about what he puts up on the internet. It’s on your permanent record, just like the permanent record they talk about in school or in the criminal court system. It’s not something easily erased.
I wish I could just erase those posts from Helen Lapor. Meanwhile my stepmother Sonia sends me the following email.
Sally, I’ve been doing some research and we can turn your mother’s Facebook page into a Memorial Page, which means that only confirmed family and friends can place posts on her timeline. That way, outsiders can’t write random comments. Don’t you think that would be a good idea?
Oh she makes me angry. I don’t want her to solve my problems. I want to take care of this myself. I decide to contact Helen Lapor again.
I really would love to meet you. It would be a privilege to meet one of my mother’s early students now grown. Could you please find the time to see me?
At first she is reluctant, but I continue to cajole her with references to my mother’s untimely death and that it is so comforting to talk to her former students who can give me insight as to what she was like when she was young, before I can remember. Can she do that for me? Finally she acquiesces and we set up a meeting at a local coffee shop.
I recognize her immediately from the photo on her website. Plus she is carrying a portfolio. She wants to show me her pictures.
“Your mother used to teach the art class before the days when they had an art teacher just for the elementary school kids. She’d bring in all sorts of different supplies: pastels, crayons, colored pencils, poster paints. I liked to do the papier-mache. That’s where I got the idea about the rainbow because I was going to make one of papier mache --- I wanted it to be a mobile, something that moved in the wind and that gave me an idea about movement, motion, and color which evolved into a story about the origin of the different colors…”
She stopped talking when she saw the puzzlement on my face. I begin to realize she didn’t mean to upset me, but she did, because all at once it starts to dawn on me that maybe the idea for My Rainbow had not entirely been my mother’s. Maybe none of it had originated with my Mom. Maybe Shelly Durham, my angelic mother was not the angel that she seemed.
There’s a lump in my throat. I can’t seem to swallow my coffee. I mumble something about not feeling too well, get up, and leave.
A few days later I send Helen a message via Facebook. Sorry to stick you with the bill. Feeling better now. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to meet. It’s the kind of note I know my mother would write.
I still visit my mother’s Facebook page, but I took Sonia’s advice and we’ve made it into a memorial page. While all her old friends have access, it’s no longer in the search engines for the general population but the page is still there.
“You have to take the bad with the good,” Mom told me, so I’m trying to be more accepting of people like Sonia. Maybe she’s not as evil as I make her out to be. As for Helen, I’m not sure what to think. Did she provide the creative inspiration for Mom’s book? And if so, what about all the work that went into developing the concept and getting it published? There are no clear answers.
I’ve been spending more time with my Dad. Maybe he ‘s not the villain.
My work has appeared in various publications including The Alligator, The Gnu, and Best Modern Voices, v 2. I've won the Glass Woman Prize for fiction and the Mia Pia Forte Prize for creative non-fiction. Bulgaria has been my home for over eighteen years. I am currently working on a YA novel about AI sentiency.
FOLDED, SPINDLED, MUTILATED
“Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.” This standard warning appeared on punch cards used for data processing throughout the twentieth century. Although computers have largely made the use of punch cards obsolete, the phrase has remained a part of American vernacular.
* * *
In her mind, Beth’s life is organized into folders of significant events.
Some memories are brief and not specific to a single time or place, little more than shadows of remembered feelings. The whiff of a crayon box, a snatch of a nearly forgotten melody, a salty sea breeze disturbing the hair on her bare arms: all conjure up nostalgic longings for times that have disappeared.
Other memories are stored as snapshot images or ultra-short films. The folder designated “Childhood Memories” is stuffed full of pleasant scenes. Mostly pleasant, anyway. One has her running and grabbing hold of the thick rope her brother has hung from an oak at the edge of their trailer park. She squeals, pretending she’s swinging through the forest with Tarzan. In another, she’s outside with one of her sisters in an open field, clapping shut the lid on a spaghetti sauce jar to trap a firefly. In a third, she’s scrambling backwards because a mouse has just peeked from behind the easy chair that’s parked alongside the family television.
There are two memories with her mother; details in the first are frighteningly honest. Beth has just turned four and she’s sitting on her oldest brother’s lap. (Even now, thirty-five years later, she can recall the walls of her family’s aging twelve- by sixty-foot mobile home, how they seemed to buckle inward, threatening to collapse and suffocate her parents, all four of her older siblings, and her.) Her fingers stroke the slipcover that has protected the couch for longer than she’s been alive; beneath her touch its threads are worn to a soft sheen. The grungy golden threads of the shag carpet have been matted by seven sets of feet. At the window, sagging drapes allow a sliver of sunlight to enter and spotlight dust performing aerial antics.
Her father’s eyes linger on Beth’s for a moment before he speaks. “We…” His voice cracks and he clears his throat. “I…” The word sticks in the air.
Beth’s mother reaches out and lays her hand on his. “I’m sick.” Her voice has sunk so low it sounds like a man’s. “It’s cancer. Bone cancer.”
Beth’s oldest sister, already a teenager, rushes to her mother’s side on the loveseat and hugs her. Beth looks around to pick up clues from her siblings on how to respond.
“Your mother has to go to the hospital,” her father says, this time without faltering.
“Why?” Beth’s twelve-year-old brother asks. He squeezes her tight as he says this and Beth releases a small “engh.”
“They have to amputate her leg,” her father adds. “We hope that will take care of it.”
Then they cry, the whole family. The memory disappears.
The next memory of her mother, from several months later, resurfaces rarely. Beth is standing near the hole in the ground into which her mother’s coffin will soon be lowered. Though people around her are dressed in somber colors and shades, Beth wears a pretty dress her mother sewed for her. Robins are winging wildly across the fabric’s indigo background and Beth is fidgeting in place, trying to scrape a bit of mud from her black patent leather shoes. Her father, standing behind her, holds her shoulders. She wants to squirm away, but he won’t let her go.
* * *
Punch cards fail to serve their intended purpose if users fold, spindle, or mutilate them. A mechanized reader cannot compensate for such damage. Cardholders should expect to pay a fine if their cards are destroyed in any of these ways.
* * *
Beth’s brain processed, sorted, and stored thousands of experiences over the subsequent years. During the last of the 1970s and early ’80s, while other families were amassing wider-screen televisions, VCRs, remote controls, video games, and desktop computers, Beth recalls simpler pleasures: Pop Rocks exploding on her tongue; scratch and sniff stickers; and straining her fingers and brain to solve a cheap version of the Rubik’s Cube.
Beth’s best little girl memory has a special folder for safekeeping. In it, she’s sitting beside her father on their overused couch, each settled into a deep indentation, beneath which springs have long ago succumbed to the barefooted frolicking of kids with excess energy. One of her father’s arms reaches behind and around her shoulders. The picture book Are You My Mother? is sprawled across their laps. A heavy black line punctuates the curve of her father’s nails, a perpetual sign of his occupation as an auto mechanic. He smells of oil and grime and sweat and love.
“When I’m a mommy,” she announces at the book’s end, “I’m never going to leave my baby.”
Her father squeezes her just the right amount.
“No,” she says, shaking the whole upper part of her body along with her head. Her hair swishes over her shoulders. “Not baby. Babies.”
“How many babies do you want?”
Her father laughs. “You’ll be a great mommy, sweetheart.”
When a little girl has a daddy like Beth’s, it’s easy to imagine that all people are worthy of her trust.
* * *
People unclear on the concept of “spindling” have, over the years, had trouble making sense of the word. Folding is obvious, as is mutilation. What exactly does it mean to “spindle” though?
* * *
When you’re seventeen, just graduating high school, and traveling by Greyhound bus to live with your aunt so that you can look for a job, you’re not necessarily thinking about how the trip might shape your life.
Beth’s brain preserves not only the images, but also the sounds, textures, smells, tastes, and emotions of the move.
“Excuse me,” Beth says to a boy about her age after she yanks her bag from the bus’s luggage compartment. He waves one last time to a friend on another bus then turns to Beth. She holds out her aunt’s address, scribbled on a pad. “Can you tell me where I can get a local bus to this address?”
He glances at the paper. “Oh. I know where that is.” His eyes meet hers. “I can show you where to pick up the bus if you want.” He’s all smiley and friendly. “Or I can just give you a ride. That’s about four blocks from my house.”
Beth doesn’t realize how pretty she is, how much men are and will be drawn to her. How they’ll want her. It’s her soft, round face. Her wavy, slightly mussed hair, untamed by nothing more than a scrunchie. Her slightly plump body. The innocence that oozes from her. A young Marilyn Monroe sans make-up, wearing faded jeans, an oversized T, and a shy smile.
Beth knows she needs to be careful around strangers. She’s seen enough TV shows and movies to know that there are a lot of creeps in the world who could wreck—or even end—a girl’s life. “Um…” Something about this boy tells her he’s safe, but she holds back.
“No problem if you want to take a bus,” he says, turning and looking beyond her. Trying to spot the bus stop, she guesses.
He’s nice, not pushy. “Well, I guess I could go with you.” She tries to ignore the disconcerting flutter in her stomach all the way to her aunt’s.
Nothing bad happens, of course. The boy, Jack Keller, is helpful and kind and asks if he can call her sometime. All her needless worry disappears. Beth jots down her aunt’s number then signs her name with large, loopy letters, adding a smiley face head with a stick arm and five tiny stick fingers. Jack grins.
* * *
Punch cards can exhibit wear before they’re considered folded, spindled, or mutilated. A card may bend to a small degree if slipped into a back pocket or may become soiled if laid on a less-than-pristine shelf. Smudges, slight bending, the softening of the edges: though not preferable, these do not impede the reading of a card’s stored information.
* * *
“Guess what, Daddy?” From her aunt’s home in Rochester, New York, Beth’s voice bounces through a phone line not quite large enough to contain her excitement. Instead, it bursts out the other end into her father’s ear in Tinytown, Pennsylvania, where he sits alone in his trailer.
He chuckles. “Let’s see. You’ve won the lottery so your old man can quit his job and live a life of ease?”
“No,” she says, dragging the syllable out in affected exasperation. “I have a job! Aunt Sue lined me up to clean house for a woman she knows. And if I do a good job, I can branch out. Word of mouth goes a long way here.”
“Hey, that’s great.”
“And I met a nice boy. He just graduated, too. He’s been showing me fun places to go and interesting things to do. You’d like him. His name’s Jack.”
Her father hesitates for a beat. “That’s great, Bethy. I hope you’ll meet other kids, too.”
Wait. What’s wrong with meeting a boy? Beth had boys as friends in school. (Not that any of the six in her graduating class of eighteen was nearly as fun or playful or cute as Jack.) Her father should be happy for her.
Maybe he’s having a hard time living alone. He and his mother married twenty-eight years ago; he’s lived with someone non-stop since then. Beth needs to cut her father a break. Besides, deep down she knows he’s only trying to take care of her. She squelches her irritation.
“So, what’s new with you?” She kicks herself as soon as the words are out. She knows that nothing—at all—is new with her father. Nothing will ever be new. He’s stuck there, alone, and will continue like that until he dies.
By the time they hang up, Beth feels gloomy.
Jack’s call a while later lifts her spirits.
* * *
If a punch card is set on the dashboard in the sun for a long period, the ink may fade so that printed information is no longer decipherable. This is not a cause for concern as it does not affect the pattern of punches.
* * *
She can’t remember the chapter and verse, but Beth clearly remembers learning about Jacob and Rachel in Sunday school when she was little. Jacob worked for seven years so he could marry Rachel. His love was so great that the time flew by like it was only a few days.
Beth is sure that she and Jack love each other that much. Not that she wants to wait seven years to marry him. They start talking about marriage soon after they meet. They decide to wait until Beth turns eighteen, just a month away. Jack vows that, before he officially asks for her hand, he’ll find a steady job. Working as a day laborer two when someone needs an extra pair of hands heavy doesn’t count.
While they wait for the birthday and job, Beth and Jack have fun getting to know each other better.
One day, they pack towels, sunscreen, drinks, and sandwiches to spend a hot and muggy summer day at Lake Ontario. They sunbathe on their backs, Jack on a beach towel his mom bought him as a kid that sports the image of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Beth on a towel borrowed from her cousin and decorated with Butterscotch, a My Little Pony character that Beth remembers begging for as a girl.
Jack props himself up on his elbows and to watch the water. Beth studies his hairy legs and chest, the Adam’s apple that jumps when he swallows, the face that looks so much more mature than those of boys in her high school and thinks, Jack is a man. A grown-up man. And he loves me. The realization is exhilarating and makes her feel grown-up, too.
“What do you want most in life?” She wants to know Jack’s hopes, dreams, and thoughts.
“I want to be good—no, great—at one thing. I don’t know what that thing is yet, but I’ll keep looking.”
He sits up and glances down at her, his body shielding her face from the sun. His face is darkly shadowed. “How about you?”
“I still have the same dream I had as a little girl. To have a dozen kids and be the best mother in the world. You know, the kind kids win contests writing about.”
In that one-word answer, Beth feels exposed, stupid, ridiculed. As though the thing she’s longed for her entire life is inadequate. “What? Do you think that’s stupid?” She hoped that, of all the people she’s ever known or knew or would know, Jack would understand. If she were alone, she’d cry.
“No,” Jack says emphatically. He lies down again and turns toward her. “I think it’s sweet.” The next moment, he rolls onto his back and adds, “I’d love to have a houseful of happy kids, too.”
Two months later, Jack lands a job.
“You’re working at a cemetery?” Beth asks, repeating what he’s just told her. She tries to keep the distaste from her voice, but it’s hard. Why can’t Jack work at a shop in the mall or maybe in a copy store or as a fireman or… well, as anything else? Working at a graveyard is creepy. The only worse job would be collecting garbage.
“At Mount Hope,” he says, as though that should mean something to her.
“Do you have to dig graves?”
“No! This is for the Department of Environmental Services. Mount Hope’s a registered historical site. Famous people are buried there, like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.”
“Oh. Then what will you be doing?”
“Lots of stuff. Maintenance, grounds keeping. It’s a big place, Beth. They’ve got 350,000 graves on 196 acres.”
The whole idea still gives her the willies, but a steady job means they can marry.
“Bethy, you’re only eighteen,” her father says when she calls, giddy about the engagement. “Why don’t you and Jack wait a little while? Take some time to get to know each other better.”
She moans. “I knew you’d say that, Daddy.” In her aunt’s kitchen, she away turns from the doorway where she’s been facing her aunt, uncle, and two teenage kids while they watch TV in the next room. She wraps herself with the phone cord, stretched at least twice its original length by her cousins. “Jack and I do know each other. We’ve been going out for months.”
“A few months is nothing. There’s no special reason you want to hurry is there?”
“What? You think I’m pregnant?” The word comes out louder than she intended and she looks over her shoulder to make sure the family hasn’t heard. Fortunately, their TV show is captivating.
“No, Daddy,” she says when he fails to reply.
“Good. That’s real good, Beth. I always knew you were sensible. Well then why rush into this? You’re young. Take some time. Have fun”
“Being with Jack is fun. He’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“Listen to me.” His voice takes a lecturing tone he rarely uses. “Even when you love someone, life is hard. You don’t need to grow up so quickly.”
“I am grown up. Why do you always have to wreck all my fun?”
“Wreck all your fun? When have I done that?”
She huffs. “When didn’t you do it? Growing up, we had to scrimp and save all the time. We never had an extra cent to spend on anything.”
“Sure, finances were tight. It costs a lot to raise five kids.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. How about when the others left home? It was no different then. I even had to sew my own dress for our senior night out. You wouldn’t give me money to go to a store and buy one.”
“I thought you wanted to sew your own dress. You’ve always enjoyed sewing.”
“That’s not true. I only did it because I had to. Because you were too stingy.”
“Too stingy? Is that what you think?” His voice sounds old. Tired. Incredulous.
“You know what, Daddy? Jack and I are old enough. We’re going to do this whether you like it or not. I’m not your little girl anymore. I’m on my own now, making money. You don’t get to tell me what to do.”
For a long, long time, all she hears on the other end of the line is breathing.
“Daddy?” she finally says in a small voice, not sure he’s still there.
“So, when do I get to meet this young man?”
“Oh, thank you, Daddy! I knew you’d come around. We were thinking about driving down so you can meet him next weekend.”
Four months later, with the unenthusiastic support of their parents, Beth and Jack wed and live together in the basement of Jack’s family home.
“We’ll move out of here soon, I promise,” Jack tells her often. “This job is only a stepping stone. I’m going to be rich someday and you’re going to live like a queen.”
Beth chooses to pin her dreams on that promise. The sooner that day comes, the better, because eleven months after the wedding, she has to quit her cleaning jobs and rest if she wants to the baby inside her to keep growing.
* * *
Accidents, neglect, natural disasters: any of these can render a punch card unreadable. Suppose, for instance, you’ve placed the card in your car. It’s possible that a flood will submerge your car, destroying its contents. Or an earthquake or landslide may swallow your car whole. If you’re involved in an accident, you might be unable to retrieve the card from the car if 1) you’re severely injured or 2) your car’s gas tank is struck and the vehicle explodes. No one would blame you for neglecting to care for a punch card in such dire circumstances. The consequences of a damaged ticket would seem minuscule in comparison.
The lesson in all this: people don’t have to worry overly much about a ticket being folded, spindled, or mutilated. Being circumspect and responsible in the now are the keys to right living and caring for one’s possessions.
* * *
When you trust someone, you feel safe when he kisses you good-bye each day and tell you he loves you. In answer to your father’s question about whether his “little girl” is happy, you first roll your eyes at the outgrown endearment and then assure him that life couldn’t be better.
When you trust someone, you don’t mind him spending a little extra time away from home so he can make more money to take care of you. You’re proud of what a hard worker and good provider he is. You even boast that, with no more than a high school diploma, your husband’s doing so well. You try not to be nettled when your father raises uncomfortable questions about how you and your husband can afford to rent such a large apartment or buy a new car. You explain that he’s taken on a new job with an import/export company and they pay him very well. You wish your father would believe in your husband as much as you do.
When you trust someone, you’re happy that he’s your husband and now the father of your new baby girl, who you think has his eyes. Unfortunately, work takes your husband away from home a lot and you need help. You’ve read about post-partum depression and want to believe that the problem is with you, not him. This too shall pass, you tell yourself those nights when you fall asleep without him at your side. You wish your father would stop asking his incessant questions; lately you’ve been snapping at him, telling him to mind his own business.
When you trust someone, you’re proud of him when he tells you that that he’s been promoted and given a big raise. Your husband’s now ready to make a down payment on a house that’s bigger, fancier, and better in every way than you’ve ever dreamt possible. The only drop of ink in the water glass of your contentment is your father telling you there’s something fishy going on with your husband. You’re so upset by your father’s accusations that you refuse to see him and won’t allow him to see his granddaughter until he apologizes.
When you trust someone, you’re devastated when policemen arrive at your door in the middle of the night and haul your husband away. When he’s sentenced to five years in prison on charges of grand theft, you feel as though life has taken you and folded you repeatedly until you can’t recognize yourself when you look in the mirror. You feel like the biggest idiot on earth. You’d like to move on with your life, as several people have advised, but you have no idea how. You won’t talk to your father when he calls; you’re way too humiliated. You’ve moved in with one of your sisters, who helps you care for your daughter; that’s good, because you’re so numb you can barely sense anything beyond your own skin.
When you trust someone, you’re willing, you’re desperate to believe him when he begs you to take him back when he’s released from jail three years later for good behavior. His eyes hold onto to yours and his voice cracks when he tells you how sorry he is, how he wants to be a part of yours and your daughter’s lives if only you’ll give him another chance. You push aside the doubts that have plagued you and stolen your sleep. You’re tired of living off welfare and the good will of your family, tired of trying to make ends meet with income from babysitting and housecleaning. You want to believe your husband so much your pores hurt. “Do you promise it’ll be different this time?” you ask.
“Yes. I promise.”
You dare to believe him.
* * *
Sometimes her brain blurs the details of past events so that Beth’s left with mere impressions of a period in her life. At other times, her brain combines hyper-realistic images together with smudges to create a mash-up. The results, just as the events they represent, can be jarring. Beth’s recollection of the year following Jack’s release from prison occupies a folder jammed with such mash-ups.
In it, he’s no longer the boy she fell in love with. His muscles have hardened from hours of daily exercise. His neck, shoulders, and chest have expanded. His face has lost its layer of baby fat and the transparency in his eyes has evaporated, replaced by wariness. He no longer kisses the way he used to; he lost a tooth in a prison fight and his mouth adjusted to make allowance for the loss. When he smiles, the new gap just behind the eye tooth on the right side makes him look different, un-Jack-like. When they make love, Beth feels as though she’s having sex with a stranger.
Jack says that she’s changed, too. She’s not the wide-eyed innocent he remembers. He had something to do with that, Beth says.
He’s sorry about that.
Despite their differences, they promise to make their life together work. They owe that much to three-year-old Claire.
They’re poor now and life is hard.
Sex leads to the inevitable.
They begin to fight: about food and clothes and bills; about providing for Claire; about how he has changed; about how she has changed. About how they’re going to take care of another baby.
He takes a job with a construction crew. The money is still not enough.
She loses the baby and blames him, though she knows it isn’t his fault.
He’s impatient with her; she’s impatient with him.
They fall asleep back to back and she wonders if they love or even like each other.
He finds a second job as a cook. She takes one as a sales clerk.
They continue to fight about food and clothes and bills. About providing for Claire.
He says he’s sorry and so does she. They forgive each other and resolve to work things out.
She starts spending time with new friends who give her ideas about standing up for herself, about not letting him walk all over her, about demanding more.
He starts spending time with new friends, too. He returns home late, smelling of alcohol and smoke. And sometimes of perfume and sex.
She talks about finances and freedom and the future.
He stops talking altogether.
Police come to their door, yelling for him to open or they’re coming in anyway. They have guns and handcuffs and are there to haul him away. She’s trying to calm their little girl, who is wailing and frantic and throws her little body from side to side so much that her mother fears she’ll lose her grip. It’s so noisy with shouting and wailing that she can hardly hear or see or hold on and all she wishes is that she could stop time like a character in a futuristic story and step out of it. She wants to go somewhere, somewhen, someplace other than this moment with these people doing and saying the things they are. The world flips over and begins to spin too fast, barreling out of control. Things that seemed glued in place loosen: their marriage, their family, their home, their future. Their lives.
He’s arrested for grand larceny and sentenced to twenty years.
She visits him once in prison to tell him that she can’t do this, now or ever again. She forgets what it feels like to be a wide-eyed innocent with nothing but love for him, believing that’s enough.
By the end, she’s emotionally impaled. All she wants to do for weeks is to roll up into a ball like a pill bug.
Divorce, she thinks, will protect her and her daughter.
Protection from pain, however, is not so easily guaranteed.
* * *
Beth’s next memory file is labeled “Derek” and it’s not one she enjoys reviewing, though sometimes the memories return anyway.
It’s too bad you can’t redo the past.
By the time Derek entered Beth’s life, the folding and spindling Jack did to her were nine years in the past. It took that long for her to consider entering another relationship with a man. By then, Claire was thirteen and Beth decided her daughter needed a father figure. If her own father hadn’t died in an accident several years earlier, Beth might not have allowed another man into her life. But he (her father) did and she (with Derek) did.
Why, Beth will never know, but Claire conjured up stupid, romantic notions about her father. While Beth didn’t want to poison Claire’s view of men by maligning Jack in front of her, neither did she want to encourage Claire’s imaginings. Beth figured that inviting a better, more responsible man into their lives was her best strategy.
Beth was also tired of being alone. Despite the many eyes that swept over her throughout the years at the restaurant where she worked as a hostess, the invitations she’d had to various events, encouragement from coworkers over the years to “go out and have a little fun,” Beth was afraid. How could she trust any man? When she met Jack as a teen, she thought she’d spend her life living with and loving him. For a while she brooded over the thought that men in general were scum and couldn’t be trusted. She always returned to memories of her father, though. He was the best, most thoughtful, and decent man she’d ever known. If she could find a man like him, her and Claire’s lives would be different.
Then Derek came along. Although not as handsome as many of the men who’d tried to woo Beth, she spotted in him other qualities she admired. He had worked his way out of poverty to become a successful businessman (which also meant that he was well enough off that he wouldn’t resort to theft, as Jack had). Though not the type to waste money, Derek wanted to take care of both her and her daughter. For Christmas, he bought Claire a laptop; for Beth, gorgeous sapphire earrings. He wanted to give them even more: a new car and a house. He promised to send Claire to college, too. All Beth needed to do is say “yes.”
“Whattaya say, kiddo?” Beth asked Claire. “Are you ready to move out of this dive and let someone else take care of us for a change?”
Claire’s quick shrug and “I guess” were not the endorsement Beth had been hoping for, but she read it as a positive sign. Though Beth had long ago abandoned her dream of having a dozen kids, she’d never lost the desire to be a great mother to Claire. With Derek, Beth felt confident that she could finally give her daughter stability and a better quality of life. More out of love for Claire than for Derek, Beth agreed to marry him.
* * *
The slideshow stored in Beth’s mind of her four-year marriage to Derek is disturbing, awful. There must have been some—many, even—positive, fun, happy moments with him. Derek was not evil, at least not at the beginning. The inky parts obliterate the others, though. When she thinks of Derek, Beth’s insides clench.
The images printed indelibly on her brain are these:
--Claire’s refusal to call Derek “Dad,” opting for the ironically loaded title of “Uncle Derek” instead.
--the way, soon after their wedding, Derek began picking on Claire. Beth’s defense of her daughter only seemed to goad him on.
--the time Beth caught Derek lingering outside the bathroom door when Claire was bathing. Why had she believed him when he said he heard a noise and was just checking to make sure Claire was okay?
--the lacy bra and underwear set he gave Claire for Christmas and his assertion that he was just going with a suggestion from the store clerk.
--his refusal to meet Claire’s date before they went to the prom or to hang a picture of them afterwards.
--his delight in going alone to one of Claire’s track meets when Beth couldn’t make it because of work. Why hadn’t she listened when another mother told Beth about the way Derek hugged Claire and kept on touching her afterwards?
--the way his eyes followed Claire when she passed by the living room on her way to her room at night.
--his audacity in commenting, “You look great in that T-shirt, Claire,” while Beth sat next to him. When she scolded him afterwards, he said, “What’s your problem, Beth? Aren’t fathers supposed to complement their daughters?”
--her own pathetic cowardice to beg off the out-of-town meeting for her department store job as design coordinator that left Claire and Derek alone together at home.
--her devastation when she arrived home that night to find that Claire had run away and left a note saying, “Mom, I’m leaving. Don’t look for me.”
--her shock at finding Derek, alive, but sprawled on the garage floor, belt unbuckled, pants unzipped.
--her relief that Derek would spend the rest of his miserable life in a long-term care facility; that his stroke would protect her from him for the rest of her life.
--her even greater relief when her second divorce went through.
* * *
If you (or anyone else; be careful who you allow to handle important items) have folded, spindled, or mutilated a punch card, you have no right to expect mercy. You will be required to pay the fine indicated on the card.
* * *
The truth about what Derek did to Claire mangled Beth. Even if he didn’t manage to rape Claire, his intention was clear. For several days after her disappearance, Beth turned off her phone, cried, wandered around the house breaking things that reminded her of Derek, and escaped reality by overdosing on sleeping pills that would take a long time to break addiction from.
* * *
Little-known fact: machines exist that can recondition (restore is too optimistic a term) mutilated punch cards.
* * *
Today a Facebook friend of Beth’s—the mother of one of Claire’s high school friends—messages her with: “Have you seen this?” and a link to a video news clip. One click takes her to a story about a man who saved his coworker when armed men entered a mini-market to rob it. A photo of the self-sacrificing young man is next to a picture of Claire. She looks different now: her hair, pulled back to one side, reveals an oddly pierced ear; three beads are stuck to her lips; and she no longer looks like a girl. But it’s Claire all right.
Within the hour, Beth is on the phone with the reporter who covered the story. Beth scribbles down the address of Claire’s rescuer.
For the first time in nearly four years, Beth feels hopeful. It’s a nervous hopefulness, but any hope at all is a wonder.
Author is a retired attorney having practiced for 35 years in Illinois who now lives in Texas and started writing stories about a year and a half ago.
Dreaming of Diversity
Justin and Dustin were identical twins. They were not diverse. The were a couple of cards. Not aces, but some of the other students at the university called them something like that beginning with the letter ‘a’. Actually they were a pair of jokers. The attended Feinstein University a school named after some feminist of the early 1900’s. But the twins couldn’t care less who it was named after, for they, in the fashion of the typical male college student there, referred fondly to their school as F.U. They thought that was funny.
Now the twins and the other students sat in the main auditorium. Every so often they were forced to attend some goofy lecture or program of some kind or another and today was one of those days. So the two of them sat there absentmindedly as the speaker of the day droned on and on.
True to traditions of the school and in keeping in tune with the old and the new, some ultra extremist feminist student at the university had come up with a brilliant idea, endorsed enthusiastically by the university of course, that she wished to present to the student body. So she informed her fellow students that she had conceived of a project combining diversity and the women’s movement, since this was women’s history month, and that it was in the best interests of everyone, both male or female, to participate. For they all needed to be exposed to both, diversity and women’s history that is, for their own spiritual health and well being she told them. Besides that, she hinted that this was going to be a cool thing to do. Cool always worked with students or they wouldn’t buy it.
“Diversity is what brings us all together and that’s what this country is all about,” she proudly proclaimed from high on her soap box on center stage.
Justin and Dustin picked up bits and pieces as she droned on. They had been having trouble staying awake. Finally somehow they put it all together and it registered in their still developing young male minds, for men’s brains and maturity develop slower than women's and that’s why women have an advantage over men, that there might be a chance for playful mischief to be had here. They stifled their guffawing and snickering best they could for a while and then one of them suddenly burst out, “Oh that’s what this country is all about is it? Not anything else huh? What about football, basketball, sports? Isn’t this country about that too?”
Then the other one quickly chipped in, “and beer.”
“Typical men,” the speaker shouted back trying to blow them off best she could. But she was hardly heard over the ongoing laughter mainly from the disrespectful, as to be expected, male students.
When things quieted down somewhat she continued, “Ms Monica Manley our head librarian has so graciously allowed us to conduct this project in her library this being Women’s History Month.”
“When’s men's history month?” shouted one of the twins.
The speaker again glared in the direction from which the taunt came unable to determine who said it. She couldn’t control herself and rose to the bait. “You dumb men are history as far as us women are concerned.”
The twins each had their own comebacks ready but decided the wiser thing to do would be to keep quiet as a couple of school officials on the stage rose from their chairs and started scanning the audience for the culprits. The twins were men but they weren’t Neanderthal men.
Ms Manley, short of stature, stepped forward and stood up on the soapbox. She was wearing her grey pant suits uniform that she always wore. It matched her gray bobbed gray hair. She looked down at the student body through her rimless granny glasses. That she was a homely woman goes without saying. And with that said, she began.
“What we are going to do students is this. We are going to have you students take naps in the library and when you wake up you are going to write down the dreams that you just had about diversity and/or women. You will then post your dreams on the bulletin board for all of us to read so that we all can see the different diverse ways we look at diversity and/or women while in a subconscious state and so that we all can have adult intelligent conversations and discussions concerning the same. Signing your name to your dream is optional. To encourage diversity and appreciation of diversity and of women’s rights, we have displayed posters concerning both all over the library to help stimulate you in your dreaming. Pleasant dreams and thank you.” With that said Ms.Manley sat down to a weak round of applause.
“This will be a hoot Bro,” said Justin to Dustin. Or was it Dustin to Justin?
“Ya I can’t wait to dream about women.”
“Ya that’s all you do. Just dream about them.”
“Ya dream about getting it on with different, oh excuse me diverse, women. That’s want I want to dream about, diversifying women if you get my meaning. I’m getting stimulated just thinking about it.”
“I’m going to ‘read’ Playboy before I go to sleep to self ‘stimulate’ myself,” said the other one whoever he was.
”They don’t have Playboy in the library. It’s banned Bro. Guess you’ll just have to settle for National Geographic and look at pictures of emaciated bare breasted women from third world countries instead.”
So the boys decided to participate in this ‘experiment’ or ‘project’ or whatever it was. They couldn’t pass up this chance for them to be their own creative snarky selves. They prided themselves on that. They couldn’t let this opportunity go to waste. So one sat down in a chair and pretended to sleep and the other put his head down on a library table and faked sleep.
“Pssst,” said one to the other. “You dreaming?”
“Ya I’m dreaming, daydreaming, daydreaming about all the diverse women I’m going to be doing. What about you?”
“I been thinking about what we should write after we’re done napping. I think instead of posting two manly dreams we should post one manly one and one not so manly as in keeping with the theme of diversity you know.”
“You mean like we write about one dream from a manly point of view and one like from a womanly point of view.”
“Exactamundo and we both sign the manly one and say since we’re identical twins we have the same brain wave lengths and dream the same things. Ms Manley and those women libber chicks will probably buy all that since they think all us men think alike anyway.”
“ And the other dream?”
“The other we write from a gay womanly point of view praising the virtues of diverse gay women. And we sign that one Monica,”
“Monica like in Monica Lewdinsky?”
“No Monica in like Monica Manley. Ms Manley’s first name is Monica. Didn’t you hear that when the speaker introduced her?”
“I must have been sleeping then.”
So the boys report of their joint mutual manly dream was as follows: “Dreamt about women, white ones, black ones, brown ones, red ones, and yellow ones and how we made a connection with each, if you get our drift, and how we enriched our mental and physical, with the emphasis on the physical, well beings and souls. Diverse women are kind of like the spice of life you know. Like the old nursery rhyme says: Little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. We enjoyed this project and hope to repeat it often. Thank you for letting us share our dreams.” Signed Dustin and Justin.
“There that ought to roil up their hormones but good,” said one to the other as he pinned it to the bulletin board.
“Whose? The men’s or the women’s?”
“Now here’s what the one by Ms Monica will say, said the other twin. “I dreamt I was flying on a big goose across the heavens. Flying all over the world meeting, greeting and conversing with and sharing the goals of our sisters in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. Touching their hearts and minds, melding with their souls, and all of us expressing ourselves as true universal women. A dream that I hope to see come true some day. Maybe not in my lifetime because there is still much left to do in the fight for equality but someday we will all come together and have closure.”
“What the hell does all that mean anyway? And what’s with the goose?”
“How the hell do I know what it means. It just sounds good and uses lots of things people say nowadays when talking about stuff like this. As for the goose, duh look at the poster on the wall behind you dude. The Adventures of Nils Holgersson. See him riding a goose. It’s by some Swedish feminist dead gay woman who wrote children’s books years ago. This is women's history month you know so who else would Ms Monica dream about but one of her heroes, excuse me, heroines.”
One of the twins, whoever it was, wrote it up as such and signed it Monica. He had a copy of her handwriting before him and he did a fair job as a forger.
The results of their dreams were posted and though many of the others posted were just as gross and ridiculous in their own way as Dustin’s and Justin’s, theirs was immediately denounced as male chauvinistic swine nonsense and taken down and shredded, burning violated fire code, by the feminist library control assistants as the twins called them.
But as to the one signed by ‘Monica,’ it was highly praised and the students fawningly congratulated Ms Manley, as if one can congratulate one for a dream, for her enlightening dream.
Ms Manley never told them that the dream was not hers because she could not let all this academic enthusiasm go to waste. Even though she suspected who wrote it, she would not ruin the moment for the students and divulge the truth. And she emphasized to the students, mainly female but some metro male students as well, that the power of suggestion of the poster was important here because it caused people to subconsciously think a certain way and therefore more women’s movement posters should be placed around the campus.
As to Dustin and Justin, well they weren’t there when all this was going on. They were at a kegger each looking for a woman, any woman. They had only one criteria, and it wasn’t diversity, when it came to looking for women. For they were desperate men.
Author’s note: A similar experiment like this was recently conducted at Southern Illinois University and obviously was the inspiration for this story. As to the Swedish woman writer of the popular children’s fairy tales The Adventures of Nils Holgersson she was Selma Lagerlof. I had some clients named Holgersson and they told me all about their famous relative. Even gave me some Swedish money with her picture on it. (See images of this on the internet.) Ms Lagerlof received the Nobel Prize for literature. And rightfully so I might add. Those stories of hers are just darling.
Shahyeim Oliveira studies creative writing in Orlando Florida, he enjoys spending his free time protecting the universe from the threats of the unknown… with his pen , you can follow him at @shahyeimolivei1.
The house of 1000 Dreams
I wasn’t exactly sure I was dreaming. I found it strange that last I remember I was laying down in my bed, eyes fixed on the darkened ceiling of my bedroom only occasionally shifting to look at the red numbers displayed on the alarm clock. But here I was now standing in front of the concrete walkway that led to my front door, the bright afternoon sun shining down behind me, I looked around without leaving the spot I stood at my strangely barren neighborhood.
A place normally so filled with life now sat empty like a ghost town, a former shell of what it once was, I took a cautious step my foot making contact with the pathway. The cement squirmed and shifted beneath my feet like a startled serpent. I quickened my pace, now very anxious to reach the safety and comfort that was my home. The concrete snake of a path below me extended and moved violently as if to keep me from reaching my door.
My hand finally clasped around the cold metal of my door knob. The path behind me gave one last burst of motion before returning to its static state. I gave one final look over my shoulder, my eyes catching a glimpse of something unsettling, a faint flicker of motion from a neighbor’s window and a feeling of being watched. Turning the knob, I entered my home closing the door firmly behind me.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I find myself in the front hall of my home, everything appears to be in order that is until I see him, or perhaps it would be a better term for the entity that stood opposite me at the end of the hall, my eyes blink multiple times as I try to mentally grasp what I’m seeing. The best way I can think to describe this creature would be as a living shadow, it stood about my height but was featureless, it was as if the very essence of darkness its self-had taken the shape of man to walk the earth. The figure appeared to be occupied with the various photographs that decorated the walls, it ran its jet-black fingers along the glass of a picture before appearing to look in my direction. Instinctively I step back a bit, my back making contact with the door behind me, the entity seemed to disregard me as it turned and walked through the door that leads to my dining room once again leaving me alone.
I make my way down the long entrance hall looking at the multitude of pictures that line the walls, each one showcasing a moment long since forgotten or a family member who’s face I just can’t place. I press my hand against the wall tracing the frame of a particularly large portrait, bringing my hand to the cool glass the frame suddenly crashes to the ground creating a near deafening sound. I step back as more of the frames begin to fall the noise so loud I must cover my ears, the frames on the opposite side of the wall also come crashing down violently.
I run down the hall towards the door that leads to my living room but for some reason it doesn’t seem to get any closer, the walls stretch on ahead of me pulling my destination farther away from me, the noise from the shattering glass bombards my eardrums causing me immense pain , I run as fast as I can down the ever expanding hall my eyes clenched shut and my hand covering my ears as blood drips from my perforated eardrums, after what felt like an eternity my shoulder crashed into the door frame of the living room. The loud noise from the hall has ceased, a glance over my shoulder reveals that the hall has returned to its normal state the pictures all back on the walls. I look down at my hands expecting to see the blood but they are dry. I face forward expecting to see the worn-out furniture of my living room, the television that I had spent countless hours watching or the old beige couch that I had spent many lonely weekends on. However instead my eyes are met instead with the harsh reflection of florescent lights off of white tiled floors, I look around confused by my situation what was once my home now resembled an office building, large grey desks spread out across the floor like metal tombstones. Situated at each a faceless figure typing away on blank screened computer monitors, I quickly recognized this place as my office building a place at which i had spent more time then I cared to remember.
In the center of the first row of desks one sat empty its lifeless monitor unmanned, I knew it was mine an un seen force was drawing me too it. Before I realize it, I’m walking towards the desk my shoes clicking against the linoleum floor, I arrive and take my seat letting my fingers glide over the key boards surface. I’m about to start typing when a noise draws my attention elsewhere, the door on the back wall that leads to my boss’s office swings open creating an audible thud as it hits the wall. As if on que one at a time the monitors around the room would activate, its faceless user would get up and line u at the now open door.
I watch as slowly the room becomes more and more empty, my eyes occasionally shift to my own monitor wondering when it will activate and I too will be drawn into the mysterious room. When the last person enters, I’m left alone my monitors screen as lifeless as when I first arrived, I’m left feeling uncertain as I sit there the large desk like a prison holding me in my place. I hear the sound of a closing door and look up to see the shadow entity from earlier standing before the one open door, only it isn’t the same being from earlier. Though similar in appearance I can tell that this figure is not the same as before, it seems to stare at me as it stands there unmoving. After what feels like an eternity it moves, walking in a quick stride the entity crosses the room to a door I had not noticed before now. It opens it and walks through leaving the door ajar behind it.
I place my hands against the desk in preparation to stand but instead feel the desk collapse beneath my touch like a dismantled cardboard cutout, I look in awe as the monitor stay stationary hovering in its place. Shaking my head, I stand and walk to the new door, giving it a slight push it swings open and I step through. The first thing I notice is the cool feeling of a summers breeze on my face, the next is the gentle chirping of birds in the surrounding trees. Looking around I see that I am no longer indoors but instead standing in the middle of a busy public park. A glance over my shoulder reveals that the door I entered through is nowhere to be found, I scan the park and see many faceless figures, some children at play others adults going on about their lives. A little bit away from me to the right is an old park bench and seated on it there is a woman, this woman unlike the others has a clearly definable face, a face that I couldn’t forget no matter how hard I had tried. As I made my way over to the empty spot on the bench my mind raced with questions I feared would go un answered. Taking the seat that I knew was meant for me I look at her studying the defined features of her face, she turns to me causing a small frown to form on my face.
Here I was again looking at a face that had once made me smile more than any other, only now, seeing this face brought me feelings of sadness, despair and the likes. Her lips move ever so slightly as she speaks, her face a portrait of the anguish I felt in my heart. Her mouth moves but no words exit, I am filled with words left unsaid and feelings I desire to express but lack the ability to speak. I could only sit in silence a deep sorrow settling over me as I watched her act out the motions, my heart seemed to break all over again as I watch her stand from that bench for second time, giving me one last look she walks away into the distance leaving me alone on the bench with only my regrets.
My eyes felt as though they are watering but when I touch my hand to my face it is dry, I glance up as it has started to darken the moon now sitting high in the night sky, I stand from the bench looking around until my eyes land on a very peculiar sight, I see what appears to be my kitchen situated not more than a few yards in front of me, situated in the solitary chair at my table was another of the jet black figures, he remains motionless as I approach his back to me. as my foot makes contact with the tile of the kitchen floor the figure rises from its seat before taking leave into the night,
Making my way over to my small coffee table it's empty save a lone cup filled with a mysterious black liquid, I recognize the cup instantly as the one I use every morning, the small chip from when I dropped it still ever apparent on the rim.
That is when I hear it, it's soft at first like words whispered from across a room but it's there, I can’t make out the words but the melody is strong and it seems to guide me. I sit down in the single chair at the table, the cup directly in front of me, my head seems to tilt towards the cup and I am looking into the black liquid within, the song seems to grow stronger with every passing second. The surface of the liquid seems to grow larger the longer I look into it, soon I can no longer see the table or the cup only the surface of the liquid.
Suddenly my feet are no longer on the ground and my back no longer against the chair, instead I’m falling from an unknown distance towards the liquid. I slam into the black substance breaking the surface like a glass window before slowly descending into the depths.
It was dark beneath the surface making it impossible to see, letting the siren like song guide me through the depths, it was warm all around him the kind of warmth that you felt when you were surrounded by friends and loved ones, in that moment I thought of everyone I cared for all the friends I had made and the experiences we had.
But it didn’t last, soon the liquid surrounding me became colder sending a chill through my bones, the cooled seeps into my body tainting my pleasant memories, all the while the song still echoing in my ears, I curl myself up as tight as I can in order to protect myself from the cold darkness that overtakes me. I feel something soft beneath me as I am no longer floating, opening my eyes I see that I am back in my bedroom, the darkness now replaced by the faint light of the alarm clock, letting out a sigh of relief I blink a few times, when my eyes adjust I realize I’m no longer alone, my bed is surrounded by shadowy faceless figure, I know them, they mean me no harm they exist only to remind me of their existence. I know their names depression, uncertainty, regret, loneliness, I have lived with them most my life, however it is only now that I have learned that I cannot escape them even in my dreams.